Gusto Pizza Co.

Located on the edge of downtown DesMoines, Iowa, Gusto Pizza Company(gustopizzaco.com) opened in January2011 when friends Tony Lemmo, JoshHolderness and Joe McConville bandedtogether to realize a common goal: makedelicious pies using local ingredients.

All three owners have a background inpizza: Lemmo previously owned a small20-seat pizzeria and still maintains aseparate upscale Italian restaurant, whileHolderness and McConville had workedfor other pizzerias, helping to open severaloperations. The trio labored togetheroff and on and, with their combined yearsof experience, decided it was time tobreak away and do their own thing. Theresult was Gusto Pizza Co., an innovatorin Des Moines pizza cuisine that helpskeep local farmers in business.

Gusto’s sandwiches, salads and pastashave their own unique flair, butthe pizzas are the real standouts onthe menu. In addition to the classicallythemed Spartacus, which boasts Italiansausage, pepperoni, cremini mushrooms,banana peppers, mozzarella andred sauce, Gusto’s menu teems withmouthwatering specialty options, such as the #24, prepared with jalapeñocreamed corn and beef brisket, and theThai Kwon Dough, which features Thaipeanut sauce, cilantro, chicken, beansprouts and carrots. Gusto’s pizza chefsprepare every menu item from scratchdaily using local ingredients.

Chef McConville provides some interestinginsights on Gusto Pizza’s successand its approach to marketing andday-to-day operations.

How long did the three of you work onyour business plan?

We worked on it for about a year.Since we all had experience in openingrestaurants for other people and Tonyowned a few places of his own, weknew some things already. While doingour own research and testing out ideas,we figured it out.

What demographic or target marketwere you trying to reach?

Everyone. We didn’t want to excludeanyone. Since everyone eats pizza, that’sour market. Our place reaches peopleof all ages. You’ll see a wide range ofdiversity on any given night. Collegekids, families, older folks, customers ofall races and ages seem to fill the placeup. Our personality shows through ourfood, and we like taking classic flavorsthat would show up in regular meals,that most people recognize, and puttingthem on a pizza. Our guests relate to it,so there’s an instant connection.

What about vegetarians?

We cater to vegetarians and vegans. Also,not everyone likes meat all the time. Wealso have gluten-free crusts and vegancheese made with rice milk. This sets usapart in the progressive food scene andhelps us stay ahead of the race.

What strategies do you use in yourmarketing approach?

We wanted to use some of the socialmedia networks such as Facebook,Twitter and YouTube because they’refree, so you’re not paying some radio
personality to say how good your food iswhen they haven’t even tried it. A yearbefore we opened, we set up accountsand started getting the word out. Ourfans (more than 27,000) post real,honest opinions, and word-of-mouthis the best advertising. We also usedYouTube to show videos of ourselves
moving stuff in to the restaurant whilewe were under construction. We wouldrecord goofy videos of ourselves movingovens in, and they showed the progresswe were making and created a buzz. Asa result, we didn’t have a soft opening.We opened a few days before we hadplanned to. We had everything prepped,then we all looked at each other andasked, “Want to open?” We said yes,posted a message on Facebook, and wehad a line forming outside two hourslater. We sold more than 300 pizzas in afew short hours.

How do you currently use Facebookand Twitter to promote Gusto Pizza?

We post daily specials, goofy videos andour hours of operation, and we connectwith the public by responding to questionsand comments on something wecall “Ask a Chef.” We also use it for otherinformation we feel the public may needto know. It’s a form of entertainmentthat younger people can relate to.

Has the green movement affected yourmarketing strategy in any way?

Yes, it has. We are a farming community.I come from a farming family,and I’m proud of that. So we wantedto showcase local ingredients fromthe community. They haven’t traveledthousands of miles or touched too manyhands. We try to support our community,people we know and those who live
within 15 minutes away from us. Wealso promote and are part of Buy Fresh,Buy Local, a local group that supportsfresher, better products. We’re big onusing farmers markets and Graziano’s, alocal Italian grocery store that’s the lastof its kind. We make our own pepperoni,and we use a local prosciutto fromLa Quercia that’s the best I’ve had. Thisensures that we have a good product,and it promotes local businesses. Whena local business provides us with itsproduct, they’ll tell their friends, andthen 20 people will come to try thatspecific product.

What kind of coupons or specials doyou offer?

We offer Gusto Bucks for people whorespond to our tweets. We also offerhalf-price slices from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.,and we have grab-and-go Prontos, whichare ready-made pizzas for pickup. Wedo specials that start on Thursday andrun through the weekend if supplieslast. We do a Chef Extra, which is a dailyspecial that could feature a slice of pizza,sandwich, soup, salad or pasta. Sometimeswe’ll do something crazy; I oncemade a pizza that had watermelon and prosciutto on it.

What are Gusto Bucks?

Gusto Bucks are gift cards. We issuethem for Social Share Mondays. Theseare for nonprofit companies or foundationsthat are worthwhile causes we support.It’s a way to give back a little to thecommunity for something we believe in.

How else are you involved with communityor school events in the area?

We are not currently involved in anyschool events, but we do participate insome community events. We have a mobilekitchen truck that is fully equippedwith ovens, coolers, freezers, runningwater–everything you need to cater andtravel with–and we bring this to eventsaround town, like music festivals or carnivals.We are unable to do this on a fulltimebasis because the city doesn’t allowit. We also travel to other communitiesin the area and sometimes to towns a fewhours away.

Do you involve staff or guests withcreating menu items?

Yes. We did a March Madness bracketlike the NCAA does. We had differentpizzas face off in a competition, peoplevoted for them, and the winner made itonto the menu. We also encourage ourstaff to come up with ideas. If it soundsgood, we’ll try it. Some ideas make it tothe menu, and some resurface as a special.Then we’ll throw a pizza party forthat staff member and 20 of his or herfriends. This approach showcases theemployee. We have fun with it, and thiscreates a fun atmosphere for everyone.

Where do the humorous names of thedishes come from?

Our first five pizzas had been on themenu at Tony’s pizza place. We’ve keptsome of them, and some have left. Someof the photos on our walls can explainthat. There are photos and paintingsthat we’ve commissioned, called pizzatiles, like the Vincent Van Goat and theDuke, named after John Wayne, whowas born 45 minutes away. There’s alsoa dish named after an old HeismanTrophy winner from the 1930s who wasa World War II hero.

What’s your slogan?

Our T-shirt slogan is “Divine Pie.” Thisshowcases our progressive thinking andour strategy to stay ahead of the race.

Does competing with the Big Threeconcern you at all?

No, because we’re doing our own thingthat appeals to people. We have someclassic dishes that other places offer, butwe put our own spin on them.

Sean Adams is a freelance writer based in Oxford,Mississippi.