When Cammy Wagner learned she had celiac disease, the longtime Blue Moon Pizza (bluemoonpizza.com) customer faced a difficult choice: Give up her favorite pie for good, or eat it anyway and pay a painful price.
It’s surely a testament to the quality of the Atlanta-based chain’s fare that Wagner kept eating the gluten-laden pizza despite her body’s strenuous objections—at least for as long as she could, before she finally went back to munching on salads. “She was a regular guest with whom we had become friendly, and she began educating us about celiac disease before anyone was talking about it,” recalls Blue Moon Pizza co-founder Amanda Slater. “She’s also Italian, and to sit there and not eat pizza was killing her. So she would cheat sometimes and just deal with the consequences. She would say, ‘I’m not supposed to eat pizza, but it’s so good I’m willing to be sick for a week just to have it.’ That’s when we decided to do some research and develop a good product for people like her.”
For Amanda and her husband, co-founder Kelvin Slater, developing a gluten-free recipe—and modifying the pizza making protocol to prevent cross-contamination—was a big job and a serious commitment, but it paid off. The gluten-free menu drew in new customers who hadn’t been able to eat pizza in years.
Heartwarming as it is, Wagner’s story also illustrates a key component of Blue Moon Pizza’s philosophy: Every customer matters. The Slaters pride themselves on making personal connections with their guests and ensuring that no one feels left out. With four locations in the Atlanta area (Marietta, Vinings, Buckhead and Sandy Springs), the company follows a business model that gets more pizza into more customers’ hands in more ways than most chains its size, while an aggressive marketing strategy gives guests more reasons to keep coming back.
A “Less Ordinary” Brand
When they opened their first Blue Moon Pizza in Marietta in 2003, the Slaters—both veterans of major chains, including Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Outback Steakhouse—cultivated a unique brand identity from the start. The logo, a retro-style illustration of a smiling crescent moon against a starry, dark-blue sky, conveys a friendly, even comforting visual image, while the name itself connotes a rare and memorable experience.
Good Times On the Moon
A promotion like this one comes along once in a blue moon—literally. Amanda and Kelvin Slater, co-founders of Blue Moon Pizza, partnered with Blue Moon Brewing Company last summer to take advantage of a somewhat rare celestial event: a blue moon, which is a second full moon in a single calendar month. The weeklong promotion, touted via e-blasts and table tents, led up to an actual blue moon on August 31. Blue Moon brews took over the pizzeria’s taps, and giveaways included T-shirts that read, “I drank a Blue Moon at Blue Moon On a Blue Moon” for every customer who bought a pitcher of Blue Moon beer. “So many people came out just for the shirt,” Amanda says. “I was really shocked at the power of a T-shirt as a giveaway.”
The Slaters have also earned PR buzz with a number of other promotions in recent years, including a heartwarming tribute to their longtime customer Ed LaPorta, a local WWII veteran and former POW. The Marietta Daily Journal and local news channels covered the celebration. Additionally, the Slaters host weekly trivia contests and wine specials and heavily promote their take-and-bake service for Super Bowls and other major televised events.
“We started out with the slogan ‘Pizza This Good Only Comes Around Once in a Blue Moon,’ but that was a little wordy,” Amanda says. “Before opening our second location, we worked with a branding company and developed our current slogan, ‘Life Should Be Less Ordinary.’ As customers, we felt like most of our dining experiences had been pretty average—not a lot of personality, not a lot of connection with the staff. We wanted to create a special dining experience in which our guests and our staff could really connect and interact.”
Along with the pithy slogan, the Blue Moon website boasts a simple, streamlined design, with photographs depicting an all-inclusive atmosphere: smiling couples on a date, a bustling full-service bar, cute kids with mouthfuls of pizza, and groups of friends relaxing on the patio.
The Slaters also piggyback on the popularity of an unrelated brand with a similar name: the Blue Moon Brewing Company. The pizza chain and the beer company have forged a close-knit relationship, Amanda says. “We sell a ton of their beer, and they help us out any way they can. They come and do tastings and education with our staff, and they also give us coasters, mugs and anything else that will help us sell their beers.”
Mad About Martinis
Beer lovers have plenty of choices at Blue Moon Pizza, including microbrews, Guinness and Peroni. But a pizzeria that strives to be “less ordinary” can’t lean too heavily on the standard pizza-and-beer combination. That’s why every Blue Moon Pizza location boasts a full-service bar with a cocktail menu worthy of a high-end nightclub. After all, not everyone likes beer. “We didn’t want to exclude anyone from dining with us,” Kelvin says. “We thought a full-service bar would help us create our own niche, and I think it has. People come just for the drinks sometimes.”
Along with well drinks and premium brands, the bar also features infusions—that is, spirits steeped with fruits over a period of days, then strained and used in cocktails. “We make several of our martinis with Bacardi rum infused with strawberries and pineapples, and we use the rum for our mojitos, too,” Amanda says. “We also infuse vodka with pineapples. The infusions are contained in jars behind the bar; they start a lot of conversations and create a unique customer experience. We can mix other types of drinks with the infusions, or we’ll pour an infusion straight from the jar for sipping.”
For those who love booze on a budget, $5 specialty martinis take center stage on Thursday nights. The selection includes the Blue Moontini, the Green Apple Martini, the Cosmopolitan, the Cheesecake Martini and the Grape Kool-Aid Martini, to name a few. Kelvin says the cocktails add another dimension of sociability to the guest experience, drawing in customers that might normally think of Blue Moon Pizza as just another pizza place. “When someone comes in to pick up a carryout order and they’re waiting at the bar, they see everything that we offer, and it sticks in their minds,” he says. “Suddenly, we’re factoring into their date-night plans, or we’re looking attractive to a group of friends or a group of couples who want to get together for drinks.”
Thursday night is $5 Martini Night every week at Blue Moon’s full-service bar.
The bar accounts for about 15% of Blue Moon Pizza’s total sales, Amanda notes. The Slaters take a systematic approach to cost management, using portion-control jiggers and carefully monitoring inventory. And every employee undergoes safe-service training to ensure that customers don’t get overserved. “Some people who are unfamiliar with running a bar might be afraid of it,” Amanda observes. “There are additional fees and some extra training required. But all of the restaurants we worked in had a full bar, and it was something we wanted to do. I don’t think we ever considered not having a bar.”
Numerous local businesses call Blue Moon Pizza for catering orders, choosing from a simplified menu featuring salads, wings, pizzas, drinks and desserts. “We get a lot of repeat catering business,” Kelvin says. “One of our biggest customers is Coca-Cola in Marietta—we deliver every day to a different section of their building.”Of course, even a “less ordinary” pizzeria can’t live on beverage sales alone. Ultimately, the bulk of business comes down to making delicious pizza and getting it into as many mouths as possible. This is where the Slaters truly shine, offering services that extend far beyond standard dine-in and delivery.
But that’s just for starters. Blue Moon Pizza also offers a popular take-and-bake option, promoting it via social media, email and instructional videos on Youtube and Facebook. Take-and-bake pizzas prove especially convenient to customers who deal with Atlanta’s notorious traffic every day. “For a lot of people, it’s a long commute after work, so if they stop and pick up a pizza on the way, it’s cold by the time they get home,” Kelvin says. “Take-and-bake allows them to eat our pizza on their schedule.”
And what about those hungry but harried customers who just don’t want to get out of their cars? The Slaters oblige them, too, with curbside pickup. “At one of our locations, you have to park across the street, walk over, get the pizza, then walk back to your car again,” Kelvin explains. “If Mom’s on the way home from picking up the kids, she doesn’t want to have to drag everyone out of the car and back again to get pizza, especially if it’s cold or raining outside. With curbside pickup, we come to them, and we create an easy, clean transaction.”
7,000 Members and Counting
In their mission to create a “less ordinary” experience, the Slaters set out to build “a community of guests…and make every person who comes in the door a more frequent and connected customer,” Kelvin says. The company’s loyalty program has amassed 7,000 members, each of whom receives a regular newsletter via email. “The key is that the newsletter can’t just say, ‘Come buy our food.’ We focus on other things that are relevant, like food drives or pizza recipe contests. We try to keep it conversational in tone rather than sending out a heavy-handed marketing message.”
With the original points-based program, customers signed up by filling out an information card and earned a point for every dollar spent in the restaurant; 100 points earned a $10 reward. As of press time, however, the company was launching a new E-Rewards Club program. Under this system, table tents bearing QR codes will be placed on every table in each store. Guests can scan the codes with their phones while waiting for their food; the code leads them to an online enrollment page, and signing up automatically earns a reward, such as a free appetizer. “The ongoing rewards will be scheduled out instead of given on a per-point or per-dollar-spent basis,” Amanda says. “All of the details aren’t worked out yet. The other program worked very well for us for many years, helping to building our database and generate repeat visits. We only changed programs because, as you can imagine, with 7,000 members, it got a little out of control administratively and financially.”That customer database will likely keep growing, especially if plans to open a new Blue Moon Pizza in Fort Myers, Florida, work out. Meanwhile, the Slaters also hope to open more shops in the Atlanta area. “It will be important to prove the concept outside of Atlanta, but we have no time frame,” Kelvin says. “We need to find and train the right people before we even think about adding more locations.”
Blue Moon Pizza:The Stats
Headquarters: Marietta, Georgia
And, after 10 years, the Slaters still love the pizza business. “I was in one of the stores today, testing a new product that will keep our delivered pizzas fresh, and I ended up eating about four or five slices,” Kelvin says. “I got to spend some time with customers that I used to see when I was there all the time, and I really enjoyed that. It’s still fun. I’m most excited about what we can potentially do and what we can create for other people—that’s what drives us. You will have always challenging times, but that’s all it is—it’s a moment in time. It will pass.”Even after taking on two additional partners to aid in expansion plans, Kelvin says he’s “always nervous” about opening new stores. “I think we’ve been very blessed to come as far as we have, so I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “There are no guarantees when we open a new location, but, if we stick with our motto, work hard and do it right, we feel very confident that we can be successful.”