“We’re Rolex guys, not Timexguys,” laughs Jeff Good, managingpartner at Mangia Bene, athree-restaurant group in Jackson,Mississippi, that includesSal & Mookie’s New York Pizza &Ice Cream Joint (salandmookies.com). “We’re better doing somethingmore complex, with moremoving parts.” Sal & Mookie’s,indeed, has a plethora of movingparts: a full-service adult lounge,the Pi(e) Lounge; an ice creamoperation that offers seeminglyendless combinations for kidsand adults alike; and a diversemenu that extends far beyondyour typical New York pizza joint.Combine the wide range of foodand beverage options with abundantcommunity service measuresand marketing that extends froman iPhone app to a yearly carnivalfor charity, and you have a thrivingNew York-style pizza business that is flourishing wheremost would least expect: in the heart of Mississippi’s capital.
Diversity in the Workplace
One aspect of Sal & Mookie’s that immediately strikes customersis the sheer variety of available food and beverage items. “Wehave the most diverse menu because we manage our productvery well,” explains Andrew Robertson,service manager. “Wehave 18 to 20 signature pizzas,plus thousands of possibilities fora build-your-own; 12 signature icecream desserts, plus thousandsof possibilities, with our 48 flavorsof ice cream; 18 nonalcoholicmocktails built from scratch; anda full dessert menu.” Robertsonalso points to the dozens of draftand bottled beers, arranged on themenu by type (wheat ales, lagers,fruit beers, etc.); and 62 choicesof sauces, cheeses, meats, veggiesand seafood for pizza, from traditionalfavorites (anchovies andGenoa salami) to exotic premadecombinations (New Orleans olivesalad and wild mushroom ragoutwith pancetta, for example).
“We don’t use a lot of raw ingredients,”says Dan Blumenthal,co-owner and executive chef forMangia Bene. “We use vegetables that are cooked and haveflavor—grilled eggplant, caramelized onions—which buildspizza in a better way. We’re not just taking ingredients and slicingthem.” Not surprisingly, the combination of gourmet-typetoppings and huge New York-style pies (Sal & Mookie’s offersonly two sizes, 14” and 18”) is a unique idea that sets the pizzeriaapart but initially posed challenges. “We wanted the classicNew York style and look, and to bringin the gourmet pizza element, so we’dhave pizzas that pushed $20 to $30.I didn’t know whether it would work,and we had to adjust when we fi rstopened and people were orderingseven- and eight-topping pies that cost$50!” However, after some tweaks,the owners found that people weremore than willing to pay the price forquality ingredients on pies that couldeasily fill a tableful of people, withleftovers to spare.
Besides the range of pizza and icecream indicated in the restaurant’sname, Sal & Mookie’s also offers appetizers,soups and salads, traditionalsubmarine sandwiches, panini, burgers,pasta and a full kids menu. Duringweekdays, slices (taken from 18” pies) are offered during lunchtimehours, with three options each day: one tomato-based, onecheese-based, and one vegetarian (the last option is often servedon the pizzeria’s whole-wheat crust). Robertson also mentions alittle-advertised lunch special that performs double-duty for therestaurant: Any customer who enjoys a lunchtime slice in thePi(e) Lounge will get his 11th slice free. “This loyalty program increasesbusiness and helps with overflow from the restaurant sowe can cut down on wait time for sit-down customers, and it fillsup a space that is often underutilized at lunch,” he explains.
Something Out of a Movie
The overall concept for Sal & Mookie’s was the brainchild ofboth Good and Blumenthal. The best friends from high schoolalready owned two concepts under the Mangia Bene umbrella:Bravo! Italian Restaurant and Bar, an upscale eatery with wood-fired pizza and an impressive wine list; and Broad Street BakingCompany and Café, a bakery with sandwiches, breakfast and acoffee house. Good wanted to create an ice cream parlor, andBlumenthal wanted to get involved in a pizzeria, so they meldedthe two together for Sal & Mookie’s. Good credits Blumenthal,however, for the vision of New York-style pizza. “In our market,outside of chain pizza, there wasn’t anything,” Good explains.“Dan’s concept of traditional, large-format New York-style pizzawasn’t being addressed.”
Blumenthal came up with his unique concept after growingup in the Northeast and going to culinary school in the 1980s,when gourmet pizza was up-and-coming in California. Butthe inspiration behind the Sal & Mookie’s moniker came froma unique source: a Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing. Themovie takes place in a pizzeria, with the two main charactersnamed Sal and Mookie. “It rolled off the tongue and evoked aNew York feeling,” recalls Blumenthal.The “New York Pizza and IceCream Joint” part even followed thetheme, because any production ofLee’s is called “A Spike Lee Joint.”The two-name theme also fit withthe restaurant: Sal was envisioned asthe pizza guy, Mookie became the icecream guy, and the business’s logofeatures the two fictitious charactersin cartoon form.Good has also followed the motto“Do the right thing” when it comes tobettering the community. He decidedto open the business in the FondrenHistoric District in Jackson, a growingarts and entertainment district inmidtown that—at the time of openingin 2007 and to this day—is in a transitionalarea. The restaurant would fi ll a hole in both the neighborhood’sgrowth and in the city’s pizza scene. “I thought itwould be a gift to the city to invest in this area,” says Good. “Partof making a community healthy is economic activity, the chancefor jobs. For us, it’s become a calling card—to do the right thing.It’s much more than just food; we’re teaching culture.”
Today, Good takes pride in the fact that the restaurant has becomea meeting place for people from all walks of life, whetherthey’re customers or employees. “We really have become part ofthe community fabric,” he beams. That includes taking part inthe monthly Fondren After 5 arts walk, for which Sal & Mookie’sprovides entertainment for attendees, as well as holding uniqueevents such as when, in 2009, a Mountain Dew “mobile tastinglab” drove up to the restaurant to give customers a taste test tohelp determine the next flavor of the popular soda.
The pinnacle of this community involvement happens everyApril when Sal & Mookie’s hosts its annual Street Carnival. Theevent was held for the fi rst time in 2009, when the owners werelooking for a way to celebrate the business’ second anniversary.“We thought, ‘What can we do to differentiate ourselves?’” remembersRobertson. “Since we’re family-oriented, we thought,‘Let’s do a carnival’; then, ‘Let’s do a benefit.’ We’ve been soblessed to have the customer loyalty we have, what could wedo with our influence to try to raise money for someone else?”The company decided to raise money for a charity that was rightacross the street—the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children. Inits inaugural year, more than $1,000 was raised for the hospital;this year, that amount doubled, and nearly 500 attendeesenjoyed silent auctions, a dunking booth (in which both Blumenthaland Good participated), children’s games such as bobbingfor apples, three pizza eating contests and three ice creameating contests (each featured two kids and one adult category).“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have community involvement;and, in the end, for any business, community involvement isthe key to really sustaining yourself,” says Robertson. “It buildsname repetition and product recognition, and many are willingto follow others who help out the common man.”
Despite the success of Sal & Mookie’s, and the fact that Goodand Blumenthal have been Jackson restaurateurs for 16 years,you won’t find them relying only on word of mouth to advertisethe business. For example, Good sends out a regular newsletterto customers on the Mangia Bene email list (addresses are garneredthrough comment cards, which each customer receives atthe end of a meal). “Email marketing has been a natural for us;it’s something we can very quickly put together and get out to alarge amount of folks,” says Good. “We’ve collected addressesover the last decade, and when we send something out, we makeit topical and, if we can, make it fun.” To wit: When employeesat the Mangia Bene restaurants began hearing questions aboutthe safety of seafood in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Good wasable to send out a newsletter that addressed the issue.
Sal & Mookie’s has also been very active on social media sites,including Facebook and Twitter. “We have more than 2,000 followerson Twitter, and our Facebook fan page has 3,000 followers,”notes Robertson. “Facebook allows our customers tohave interaction, and people can post pictures and comments;Twitter allows us to have immediate interaction with customers.”An employee at the Sal & Mookie’s pickup window maysend a tweet that he’s open for pickup orders, or give a deal tothe first customer of the day. Conversely, if a customer tweetsabout a bad experience at the restaurant, Robertson can immediatelyrespond and work out a solution instantly (saving thatcustomer from complaining to dozens of his friends over sixmonths’ time).
One of the most progressive facets of the Sal & Mookie’s marketingplan is an iPhone app, which customers can downloadfor free and allows them instant access to the Mangia Bene familyof restaurants. The app allows customers who have iPhonesto check in on current events, daily specials, pictures posted bythe restaurants, and more. “The iPhone app is a wonderful toolbecause it feeds directly off our website,” relates Robertson.“We can also use it for marketing purposes, such as offering anInternet coupon, which costs us no money or extra effort. Wecan say, ‘Show your iPhone at the restaurant and get 15% offyour meal.’”
Good points out that the app allows customers to see themenu and place an order, and phone lines are freed up becausecustomers aren’t calling in to ask about daily specials(customers who don’t have an iPhone can find all of the sameinformation on the website). “We’re trying to reach people inways they want to be reached,” says Good. “We keep it relevantand keep it fresh, and people love it because there’s valueand it’s genuine.” All of the managers at the restaurants haveiPhones so that they have the capability to use Facebook andTwitter right from the dining room, posting pictures and updatesas necessary.
The owners and managers at Sal & Mookie’s have plenty ofexperience in doing the right thing—for their business, for thecommunity and for their customers. With three years of pizzeriaexperience under their belts, they’ve already had plenty of offersfor franchising, additional locations and licensing agreements,but they believe in preserving the quality of their business ratherthan diving into unchecked expansion. However, they alwayskeep their ears open for those who come to them with ideas.In fact, for those who come to him for advice, Good provides asimple rule: “The No. 1 thing is to answer the phone.”