It’s not easy to stand out in a town like New Orleans. Every little hole-in-the-wall has a genius chef in the kitchen. Culinary celebrities such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse call the city home, and even the average Cajun grandma in Metairie can whip up a pot of gumbo or jambalaya that’ll make you cry for joy.
So when James “Jammer” Orintas, Greg Dietz and Ted Neikirk—a trio of childhood buddies from Little Rock, Arkansas—quit their stuffy office jobs to open a pizza joint, called Theo’s Neighborhood Pizza (theospizza.com), in New Orleans’ Garden District in November 2004, some folks thought they’d lost their minds. And when Hurricane Katrina blew in just eight months later, the three partners began to suspect their critics were right.
“We knew there was a pizza void here, but we didn’t know the city that well,” Orintas recalls. “People said, ‘You’re moving to New Orleans? It’s the food mecca of the world. And you’re not even going to deliver? You’ll never make it.’ All of us had quit our jobs to do this. And then Katrina hit. At the time, it felt like the kiss of death.”
But even as the floodwaters roiled and the looters ran amok, business owners like the Theo’s trio knew they had little choice: They had to rebuild not just their stores and their livelihoods but do their part to help rebuild the great city itself.
Now, seven-and-a-half years later, Theo’s isn’t just thriving—it’s expanding. In addition to their original location on Magazine Street, the partners have added stores on Canal Street and in the suburb of Elmwood. And they’ve helped turn the Big Easy—once renowned chiefly for its Cajun and Creole fare—into a mini-mecca of pizza.
|Mikey Arruebarrena readies a pie in one of Theo's Bakers Pride ovens at the Elmwood location. Photo by Kara Hoffman|
A “Harebrained Idea”
Orintas, Dietz and Neikirk grew up together in Little Rock and developed a shared love of pizza, thanks to a little hometown shop that specialized in a thin, crispy, crackerlike crust. Neikirk and Orintas worked their way through college in a pizzeria, too, slinging dough and chopping onions in the kitchen. “We loved it,” Orintas says. “It was the best college job you could imagine. Then, after graduating, we all got stuck wearing coats and ties to work and hated it. We just didn’t want to work for somebody else. At the time, Greg’s wife was attending law school at Tulane University. They’d complain that there weren’t many pizza places in New Orleans and none that served the kind of pizza we used to get at that little joint back home. So we got this slightly harebrained idea that we’d open a pizzeria of our own. And we just got together and did it.”
First, the partners conspired to reproduce the thin, crackery crust that they remembered so fondly. “It’s almost like the St. Louis style, minus the Provel cheese,” Orintas notes. “But we expanded on that a bit, eventually offering 40-plus different toppings and 20 specialty pizzas. If you look at most traditional pizzerias, there’s a sort of standard that they usually follow, but we didn’t do that. In all honesty, we just took everything that we liked and did it that way. And it worked.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, though, the fledgling pizzeria’s future looked bleak. As rescue choppers buzzed overhead and soldiers patrolled the flood-ravaged streets, media pundits speculated that the city might never bounce back. But the Theo’s crew had little time for gloomy prognostications. “I think we were too dumb to know any different,” Orintas says. “For us, we could either file for bankruptcy or open back up. We had no other choice.”
Within 10 days after the hurricane, the three men were back at their restaurant, which had been spared the worst of the flooding due to its location. On the same day the city reopened for business, so did Theo’s, with a sign out front that said, “Rebuilding New Orleans, One Pizza at a Time.” Every morning they loaded Orintas’ Chevy Tahoe with food products from Sysco, drove into town and, using hundreds of gallons of bottled water trucked in from Arkansas, created a limited menu of pies with pepperoni and sausage, Budweiser and Coke. As word spread, bleary-eyed police officers and National Guardsmen with AR-15s lined up outside every day, and locals began to use Theo’s as a gathering place. “Everyone was coming into the restaurant and spotting their friends and neighbors that they hadn’t seen in a while, and they’d all be hugging each other,” Orintas remembers. “And it didn’t matter how much food we started out with; we ran out every night by 8:00 for months. It was crazy.”
|Muffalettas, Cobblers and More|
Marketing, logoed merchandise and cross-promotions have been major factors in the success of Theo’s Neighborhood Pizza, but it’s the innovative pizzas that turn the merely curious into regulars. Co-owners James Orintas, Ted Neikirk and Greg Dietz never rest on their dough-dusted laurels for long—they’re constantly developing new recipes for their Pizza of the Month special and adding the most popular ones to the regular menu. In addition to the combinations described in the main article, here are more examples:
The Shroomie—olive oil, mozzarella, white onion and shitake, cremini and button mushrooms with a pesto drizzle
The Sweet Cobbler—mascarpone cheese and sweet peaches topped with crumbled sugar cookie and drizzled with honey
The Muffaletta—olive salad, mortadella and a mixture of mozzarella and provolone cheese topped with salami and ham
Chorizo Jack—olive oil, pepper Jack and mozzarella cheeses, chorizo sausage, pineapple and Anaheim peppers
Caprese—Marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil
The Andouille—olive oil, pepper Jack and mozzarella cheeses, purple onions, Anaheim peppers and andouille sausage
A Team of Rivals
Sheer pluck and tenacity kept Theo’s plugging along through the post-Katrina trauma, but clever marketing, hard work and quality food have been the keys to its long-term success. Orintas, who handles most of the marketing duties, takes a community-centered approach, teaming up with fellow restaurateurs and nonprofits alike to create mutually beneficial promotions.
Theo’s Pizza of the Month has been one of its most successful promos. Inspired by the fare at a nearby barbecue restaurant called The Joint, Orintas and his buddies developed a pie featuring The Joint’s pulled pork, and both restaurants touted each other on their websites and via shared email lists, in-house signage and social media outlets. “We did it for a month, and we went through something like 250 or 300 pounds of pulled pork,” Orintas says. “That was probably our biggest success.”
Theo’s has also partnered with Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Fish Fry to develop the Blackened Shrimp Pizza, an olive oil-based pie featuring shrimp, green onions, minced garlic, onions, green peppers and mozzarella cheese and topped with Louisiana Fish Fry’s blackened seasoning mix. Teaming up with an organic farmer, Jack and Jake’s Organic Farms, led to a mushroom-based pizza special, while Jacob’s World-Famous Andouille in LaPlace, Louisiana, lent its product to a sausage-centered pie. Future plans call for a partnership with Toups Meatery, a Mid-City Cajun restaurant famed for its charcuterie, and a taco pizza to be developed with a local Mexican restaurant.
Those aren’t the only examples of Theo’s “team of rivals” strategy. With styles ranging from authentic Neapolitan to New York and Chicago pies, pizzerias have begun to flourish in the city since Theo’s opened in 2004. With that in mind, Orintas decided last summer to launch a “pizza war,” a 10-week promotion that involved 10 pizzerias around the city and drew roughly 500 participants. “It turned out to be a phenomenal success,” Orintas says. “Every customer got a little passport, and they had to eat and get their passports stamped at all 10 restaurants to be entered for drawings for some great prizes. The grand prize was two VIP passes for Jazz Fest, which was a huge deal. You could also win $50 gift certificates to all 10 restaurants. Everyone saw a good spike in business, and I think we all got new customers out of it. Someone may have had their favorite pizza place in town, but this gave them a reason to try everyone out and maybe form a different opinion. Maybe they preferred the place with the Chicago-style pizza, but then they tried us, so now they go back and forth between the two.”
When Orintas, Neikirk and Dietz aren’t busy turning their competitors into compatriots, they’re raising money for causes close to their hearts. “From day one, that was really important to us,” Orintas reflects. “We promised ourselves that, if we could make this restaurant a success, we’d give back to the community. It means a lot to us, and it’s also great marketing.”
One beneficiary is a local Salvation Army post. Every month, Theo’s throws a birthday party for its clients. “Someone will always have a birthday that month, so we bring in balloons and a birthday cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them,” Orintas says. “We’ll feed 40 or 50 adults and children, and everybody gets pizza and soft drinks. To meet all these kids who have absolutely nothing and throw this party for them—I can’t describe what it feels like. It will almost bring you to tears.”
Theo’s also sponsors a monthly dinner at a local group home for at-risk youths called Boys Hope. Meanwhile, the city’s police department gets a lot of love from Theo’s, too—the Magazine Street shop is located right across from a police station and draws a regular crowd of New Orleans’ finest. “We always donate a ton of pizzas to NOPD during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and Blues Fest,” Orintas says. “They love us. They’re eating at our place once or twice a week. They support us, and we support them.”
In addition to garnering local media coverage, all of that community outreach gets plenty of Theo’s logoed pizza boxes into potential customers’ hands. “I’d rather spend money on that than on a print ad,” Orintas says. “They see our pizza boxes everywhere, and they know we’re supporting the community. I think that’s the best marketing you can do.”
The Expert is a specialty pizza featuring crumbled bacon, spinach, tomatoes, and purple onions. Photo by Kara Hoffman
The Social Strategy
Pizza boxes aren’t the only Theo’s-logoed items making the rounds. “We don’t do radio or TV advertising, and we do only a minimal amount of print,” Orintas admits. “I’d rather spend that money on T-shirts, hats, Mardi Gras cups and Jazz Fest and Blues Fest coozies. We’ll order a thousand of them and give them out to our customers, and then you’ll see them all over the city. We also partnered with Abita Brewing Company to create these pint mugs that were hugely successful for us. We had our logo on one side and the Abita Amber logo on the other side. People loved them. If I’m going to spend money on something, I want to make it last.”
All of that heavy-duty marketing—and, of course, a tummy-tempting menu—has even helped Theo’s become the pizzeria of choice for the city’s beloved New Orleans Saints. The team calls in for weekly postpractice deliveries throughout the season, and Orintas never misses the opportunity to shoot a photo of the boxes bound for the locker room and post it on Theo’s Facebook page.
In fact, Facebook figures prominently in Orintas’ marketing strategy. The secret, he says, is not to overdo it. “There’s a fine line between getting out your message and bombarding people. I will never post more than once or twice a week or even just once every other week. We have an email list of 1,000 people, but I’ll only send out an email, such as our newsletter, once every three or four weeks. When I post or email something, I want them to know that it’s worth reading. Less is more with social media. If you’re hammering and hammering them, it loses its effectiveness.”
But one thing that will never draw customers through Theo’s doors is a coupon. Although the pizzeria promotes weekly beer and wine specials—such as $1.50 draft specials on Tuesday nights and half-off bottles of wine on Wednesdays—Orintas has never met a coupon deal that he liked. “When you start doing coupons,” he says, “I think people expect them every time, and I feel like it can cheapen your product a little bit. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that, but I’d rather give away promotional items that have our logo, things that people can hold onto and use, than give out discounts.”When Orintas posts something, it’s usually a plug for Theo’s Pizza of the Month or, even better, a photo of customers enjoying a pizza, a cute kid at a table or employees at work and play. “It’s not about giving half off a pizza that day; it’s about engaging your customer base. And if you just post a picture of an amazing-looking pizza, I promise you, that draws people in, and they’ll order within the next hour after they see it.”
Whatever you may think of three guys from Arkansas who dare to open a pizza joint in Cajun country, their gamble certainly paid off. Theo’s newest store—which opened last December—is projected to rake in about $1.6 million in its first year, while the Canal Street store earns about $1.5 million and the Magazine Street shop hauls in about $900,000 a year.
Friends for Life
Theo’s Neighboorhood Pizza
Headquarters: New Orleans, LA
Co-Owners: James Orintas, Ted Neikirk and Greg Dietz
Year Founded: 2004
Number of Units: 3
Number of Employees: 85
Ovens: Bakers Pride
And the trio’s lifelong friendship hasn’t suffered a bit. They still take business and pleasure trips together—along with their wives and kids—and share a beach vacation once a year. Over time, each partner has found his own niche in the company: Neikirk deals with food orders and vendors, while Dietz focuses on accounting and payroll and Orintas handles the marketing and personnel. All three of them also continue to work daily managerial shifts. “We are definitely not absentee owners,” Orintas states.
“We’re three guys who grew up together and, even though we’re all different, it’s a good balance,” Orintas concludes. “When you deal every day with people you trust and who share the same end goals, it makes things a lot easier. In the nine years we’ve been in business, we’ve had one big fight, and that was over the paint color for a wall. If that’s the worst thing we’ve got to fight about, I’ll take that all day long.”