When Fedor Ovchinnikov, founder of the Russian chain Dodo Pizza, told us he planned to open his first American store here in Oxford, Mississippi, I thought it was a gutsy move. I also wondered if he was, perhaps, slightly crazy. Oxford has an outsized culinary reputation for a small college town. It’s a foodie town, with restaurants operated by James Beard Award winners and finalists. It’s the kind of place that could turn even a lowbred philistine like me into something of a food snob. Before I moved to Oxford in 1993, my favorite meal was Beanee Weenees and barbecue potato chips. Now I use terms like “prosciutto” and “garlic aioli.” I get irritated when the supermarket runs out of fresh basil.
Undeterred, Ovchinnikov’s team opened Dodo’s doors earlier this month, with little fanfare but widespread acclaim. Even riskier was its marketing strategy—no advertising, door hangers or direct mail. Just a Facebook page that solicited 500 “beta tasters” to receive free pizzas two weeks prior to the store’s opening. That’s a lot of free food and, if it wasn’t up to par, potentially a lot of negative buzz. But Ovchinnikov’s confidence in his product was not misplaced.
We’ll explain the rollout in more detail in an upcoming issue, but suffice it to say that 266 beta tasters actually ordered free pizzas, and 116 wrote reviews (not required, by the way, for the free pizza) on Dodo’s Facebook page by the end of the trial period. Of those reviews, 109 were 5 stars, and seven were 4 stars. Dodo’s overall rating was 4.9 out 5 stars. As of today (a little over a week after Dodo’s actual opening), the 4.9 rating still holds with 135 reviews, including my own 5-star write-up—the meat lovers pie blew me away. (For the record, I declined to be a beta taster.)
The moral of this story: Quality pizza with fresh ingredients really can be a powerful marketing strategy in its own right. Whether Dodo Pizza can thrive over the long term without more traditional marketing, I won’t venture to guess. But we at PMQ continue to be impressed with Ovchinnikov’s team, its commitment to excellence and its willingness to innovate and take risks. Dodo Pizza is turning into a fascinating case study from which every American operator can learn.