Houston…we have a champion

In case you haven’t heard the news, Michael Shepherd, owner of Michael Angelo’s Pizza in Kenton, Ohio, won the gold medal for the largest dough stretch this year in Italy. This was Michael’s third time on the team. He and I talked recently about his trip to the top.

Getting Involved with the Team and Winning

Michael first got involved with the team back in 2002, the first year that PMQ took a full team to the World Pizza Championship. PMQ hosted the first largest stretch competition at the Mid America Pizza and Ice Cream Show. “I got a flyer in the mail telling about the competition and thought ‘hey I can do this’ since we had always hand-tossed our pizzas anyway,” Michael says. “Luckily, I ended up winning first place at the competition.” He won this competition without ever seeing it happen.

He prepared for the competition by reading over the rules provided by PMQ and practiced when the store was slow. “I really had no clue what to expect being the first time,” he says. “At the first competition in Columbus, we used the wrong rules. This really threw me off when we got over to Italy,” Michael says. “I think I was naïve about my skills. I was telling myself ‘Hey, I’m pretty darned good,’ but once I got my rear kicked and saw just how much better the Italians were—I was telling myself ‘Wow, I really stink—I have a lot to learn.’”

And, learn he did. Last year, he placed sixth in the world in the stretch and fifth place in the fastest. This year he says there were no surprises. “I knew exactly what to expect and was not nervous at all,” he says. “I wanted the gold medal bad and went into the whole thing thinking, ‘I am going to place.’”

This year Michael again placed fifth in the fastest. His fast pizza making skills probably come from a hard learned lesson—the worst marketing idea he ever had. “It was our six-year anniversary special,” he says. “You could get a 14” pizza with up to six toppings for only six dollars, no limit. We did this three days in a row. It was a nightmare! I slapped out so many pizzas that I was sore for weeks afterwards.”

Using the Team in His Business

Michael says the team helped to “bolster” and “reinforce” his business. He says that in the midst of the down-turned economy his business has grown each year. “In 2002, we saw our sales increase 19 percent. In 2003, sales increased 16 percent.” This year they are looking at a 14 percent increase over 2003, not including sales from his recently opened second location.

Michael said no one was really crazy over the team at first because he didn’t do a whole lot with it. In the past three years, he’s incorporated it into his marketing plan and now, customers ask him about it and follow it. “We do a lot of email marketing and keep our customers up to date with what has been going on, especially this year via emails with photos,” he says. “Plus, we’ve nabbed the front page of the paper five times, had at least 5-10 other mentions and photos in other papers, been on the local NBC news twice, had a mention in USA Today and some footage on CNN. The chamber of commerce has also been keeping the town up-to-date by including info in their newsletters and emails.”

Michael also had a secret weapon hiding in his store—his younger sister, LeeAnna. He had her come to the U.S. tryouts and she secured a place on the team in Milwaukee. This brought even more press, and with her being the first female to compete in the American trials, she was featured on national and local television. CBS’s The Early Show did a feature on the Columbus trials and focused on her and Brian Edler.

Michael says he got LeeAnna and some of his other staff involved with the team “as a marketing ploy.” “I knew that LeeAnna was really good with dough, and a few of my other staff were pretty good as well. I had the experience of what to expect at the competitions and was able to give them the heads up. I felt we had a pretty good shot at getting someone else from our store on the team, and if we did, we would be able to milk even more press out of it. What are the odds that two people from the same shop would make the team, let alone be brother and sister? And, it worked, our customers wanted to know more and more. We’ve been having people from one to two hours away coming to see us and try our pizza. The Food Network special really helped. The most important thing that I think the team has done for us is it has earned us a ton of respect from our customers.”