How appetizing is your menu?

Download List of Appetizer Companies (Excel File)

Outside of encouraging customers to order additional toppings, how can a pizza operator increase his average ticket sales without increasing the menu price of his or her pizza? This is where the appetizer menu comes into play. Unlike most restaurants where customers order an entrée with vegetable sides and possibly a salad, pizzerias are in the unique position where one item comprises the entire meal. An average ticket may have a large pizza, drinks and possibly an order of breadsticks.

Pizzerias have a couple of advantages to selling appetizers. First, as mentioned above, the pizza is the only part of the meal. There are no side items to be ordered ala carte. It's one big entrée that everyone shares, which means there isn't much variety to the meal outside of the toppings on the pie. The second advantage is the amount of time that passes between when the order is placed to when it arrives at the table or the customer's door. Another advantage to a good appetizer menu is they give patrons something to nibble on while they wait. They can buy you some time if the ovens are running behind.

A good appetizer menu will offer items that are: appealing to the customers, are quick to fix, require no additional equipment, will be complimentary to pizza or Italian food, will not require excessive prep work to be done and have a good shelf life. This article will focus on ways to kick-start existing appetizer menus, market them to your customers or launch new appetizer items. We will also look at baked versus fried items, what appetizers other operators are selling, or not selling, and some of the new products to hit the market.

What's Hot and What's Not?

We called several pizzeria owners and asked them what appetizers were hot sellers and it seems the top performers are hot wings, cheese and bread sticks, stuffed jalapenos, salads, toasted ravioli and calamari. According to most of the operators we spoke with, fries and onion rings appear to be the worst performers.

While hot wings can sometimes be a hassle, they do seem to be a menu item that performs well. Billy Graham, general manager of Papa Vito's Pizza and Wings in Cocoa Beach, Florida, says they sell about 250 pounds of wings each week. Domino's Pizza, which only offers three appetizers that they refer to as sides, added wings to the menu after their success in certain test markets. Eight years ago, Joey Todaro, with La Nova Pizzeria in Buffalo, New York, had a glimpse of the future. In 1994 he launched La Nova Wings and has recently launched La Nova Wing sauces, to help supply the pizza industry with the Buffalo favorite. Now La Nova Wings is a testament to how well the product has been accepted by pizza consumers with sales continuing to soar year after year.

One of the great things about wings is that they can be fried, if you have fryers, or baked in the oven, so any operator can add them to the menu. Wings fit right in with pizza in that they, too, are a finger food requiring no plates or silverware to eat. They also work great as bundled items. Drawbacks are: wings aren't a low-cost item and they are best served with some sort of dipping sauce, which can cut into their profit margins. However, customer demand is there and sales of this item are strong.

Cheese and breadsticks also have great appeal in pizza operations. Advantages to breadsticks are: you can use existing ingredients (your regular dough, sauce and cheese) to make them, they are low-cost (usually well under a buck to make), they are quick to make, they compliment Italian food and customers order a lot of them. In the last issue of PMQ, Melissa Zimmer demonstrated how she was able to noticeably increase her average ticket order by simply adding a breadstick menu. Breadsticks can also be modified by adding an assortment of toppings and sauces to create other varieties, such as barbecue sticks, nacho sticks, cheese or regular sticks (see the breadstick article form the last issue at www.pmq.com/mag/2002winter/breadsticks.shtml.

Cheese sticks work well because they too are a perfect match with pizza and can be fried or baked. Fried cheese sticks can be cooked in about two minutes in a deep fryer, which makes them a quick appetizer, while baked cheese sticks can take up to six minutes to cook. But, add a little sauce and customers scarf them down. If you have a bar in your pizzeria, cheese sticks, as well as wings, are great bar food for customers who are just in for a drink or may be waiting at the bar to be seated.

Because breadsticks and cinnamon sticks are relatively inexpensive to add to an order and taste great, customers are open to suggestive selling of the item. Several of the bigger chains have seen the benefits and tried the item out or added it to their menus. Little Caesars introduced the Caesar Sticks and Domino's Pizza started with regular breadsticks and is now offering CinnaStix and Cheesy Bread Sticks.

Holly Ryan, Domino's public relations manager, said, "We have seen a significant number of customers purchasing and repurchasing CinnaStix. The (CinnaStix) launch turned out to be one of the most successful promotions for the company in recent memory and it created a great deal of positive momentum for Domino's Pizza."

Salads are a quick fix, too. You can offer several different salads by changing the ingredients. You can offer a Greek with Feta cheese and Greek dressing or a Mediterranean Salad with marinated artichoke and palm hearts. Salads can be served in just a few minutes so customers can start their meal soon after they order. This appetizer is one that can also be an entrée for the health conscious diner who may be out with friends. The drawback right now is the price of lettuce. California's worst lettuce shortage in 15 years could affect the U.S., according to state agricultural specialists. More than 50 percent of the country's lettuce comes from California. Farmers attribute the shortage to unusually cold weather, which stunted the growth of crops, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.

One of the hottest items right now, according to pizza operators and bar owners, is Poppers®. Poppers are stuffed jalapeno peppers that can be baked or fried. They can be stuffed with an assortment of items from mozzarella or cheddar to cream cheese. Gary Santos, with AutoFry, says this item "is becoming a staple." He says there are more than 20 different varieties of stuffed jalapenos, even an Italian version. This item has been around for several years, but sales have recently exploded. Sounds like this could be the next hot wing.

Other items to consider are the new fried stuffed olives, calamari and chicken fingers. Chicken fingers also serve a dual purpose in that they can be appetizers or can be topped with mozzarella and sauce to make chicken Parmesan or can be used to make chicken subs. One operator said a new item he has had success with is black olive tappenade, served on tiny toasts with olive oil, a few drops of balsamic vinegar and fresh basil. According to several operators we spoke with, calamari is a good seller. Villa Pizza's Mike Fox said they added calamari about a year ago and sales are doing quite well. Villa Pizza uses a baked product and orders are usually accompanied with marinara or a marinara-like cocktail sauce.

One item we ran across that really got our attention is a handheld baked potato product called the Potizza™ by WesTom Corp. This could be the answer to Pizza Hut's P'Zone. Potizzas™ are potato half-shells that are hand-scooped and IQF frozen. They can be taken straight from the freezer, filled with any pizza topping and go right in the oven.

Marketing Appetizers

OK, so you have your appetizer menu set, now how do you kick-start the sales? Customers first have to know you have added an appetizer menu or new menu item. Even then, there's no guarantee the orders will start pouring in. Humans are creatures of habit. If you have a POS system, look at order histories. Regular customers tend to order the same thing each time they visit your restaurant. It may not be that they only eat a pepperoni or supreme pizza, it may be that they just haven't tried anything new or discovered new combinations. It's your job to entice them into trying it the first time, then it can become part of their habitual order.

Holly Ryan, with the public relations department at Domino's, said that Domino's has had success with bundling items. She also says the key to increasing the order amount is to have the person taking the order suggest adding a soda and 'side item' to make the customer aware of their options and help them build an entire meal for the family. Villa Pizza's Mike Fox agrees and says Villa Pizza just added permanent combo meals to their menu. Mike also says that bundling works good for promoting new appetizers and increasing sales as a special promotion, but while sales are good during the promotion they tend to fall off after it has ended, which is why they made the combos a permanent fixture.

Just adding combos to the menu or running them as special promotion is not enough according to one independent operator. He says that he gets help with point-of-purchase (POP) material from his distributors. Many appetizer companies have table tents and other materials you can get directly from them or your distributor to help in promoting their product.

Probably the best way to increase the average ticket order, but one that is neglected, is having your employees 'push' the items. Every person that calls should be up-sold and encouraged to try a new item you have added or be encouraged to add a side and a drink to the order. Customers won't order it if they don't know about it. Sounds simple enough, but the idea has to be executed. With dine in orders, you have to stress to your employees to mention new items or suggest bundled deals. There are alternatives with call-in orders.

Once again referring to the last issue of PMQ, the article "Do Your Customers Hang On or Hang Up?' provides a solution that up-sells each and every customer (this article can be found online at www.pmq.com/mag/2002winter/holdorhang.php). Auto-attendants and message on hold systems can be setup to inform customers of new items while they are on hold or even before you hear the phone ring. "Since we had our answering system installed, we have seen a 1,000 percent increase in our hot wing sales and about a 50 percent increase in average ticket sales for to-go orders," says Tony DiPardo, owner of Kelso's Pizza.

"We added Poppers® to our menu before we had an answering system installed," says Monte Hoskey, area supervisor for a franchisee with four stores in the Kansas City area. "At that time we were selling three, maybe four orders a week. We were throwing away more than we were selling. After having our answering system installed and promoting the Poppers® on it, our sales have really taken off. It took less than four months for the system to pay for itself."

Rick Harderty, manager for Gordy's Pizza and Grinders in Troy, Michigan, says that one successful way they have gotten customers to try new appetizers is by offering a free appetizer with any two grinders ordered. He says this got customers to try the new items and they just kept ordering them.

Billy Graham with Papa Vito's Pizza and Wings employed several tactics to increase his average ticket sales through appetizers. He said the first thing they did was change their name and added "and Wings" to the end. This let people know they offered more than pizza. "Adding Wings to the store name really helped," Billy says. "After that, we stared getting orders for just wings." He said they also did single piece direct mail, door hangers and ad signs that go in the hotels and motels. He says they did the promotion for about five or six months and the results were twofold. It not only brought average ticket sales way up, it really boosted the sales of Poppers® and mozzarella sticks.

Baked or Fried?

Now that we have discussed what's selling and what's not and how to market or kick start appetizer sales, let's look at the baked or fried issue. OK, so you have the choice of wings, stuffed jalapenos, stuffed olives, chicken tenders, cheese sticks, calamari and so on; do you want to fry or bake them? First, what taste do you prefer? Some people like deep-fried, some like baked. Taste is a matter of choice. All of these appetizer products can be purchased in a form that can be baked or fried. Sometimes the baked products can be more expensive, but if you don't have a fryer they may be the choice for you.

Deep fryers alone are relatively cheap to purchase, but there are add-on cost involved. You have to get hoods and vents installed along with fire suppression systems. You also have to look at your location. Are you in a two-story building where additional duct work has to be done? Does your landlord allow deep fryers? Do you want employees working with open fryers? These are all considerations to think about, but the product does taste different, some say better and some disagree, and they do produce a finished product faster. If you cannot afford the hood, vent and fire systems, a baked product is probably the answer.

But wait, there's even a solution to those who want a fryer without all of the considerations mentioned above. There are two alternative solutions available. One is the self-contained fryer, like the ones produced by Autofry (www.autofry.com) or Perfect Fry Company (www.perfectfry.com). These units require no vents, hoods or fire suppression because everything is built into the unit. They are slightly higher than deep fryers, but because they require no additional equipment, the end costs are cheaper. And because they are self-contained, there are fewer hazards for employees. The other solution is hot air fryers. These are very new pieces of equipment that use hot air to cook. Autofry makes a hot air type unit they call the AUTOCRISP and we have heard about a couple of other manufacturers who also make this type of fryer, but at press time we could not locate them for comment. We will investigate this and try to let you know more through www.pizzanewsonline.com in the products section and with our email newsletter. If you do not get the newsletter, go to www.pmq.com and click on "Subscribe to Free Newsletter" under Contact PMQ.

One thing you may want to consider is offering free samples of new appetizers to customers. What would happen if you dropped a free wing, stuffed olive or jalapeno in the corner of your delivery box to let customers try the new item or place a sample on the side of dine-in orders? I know what you're thinking, "But, I could end up giving away hundreds of dollars in product." Now put yourself in your customers' shoes. How willing are you to buy something new you haven't tried, especially an item that's optional? How many times have you tried a free sample and discovered a new favorite? It's not to say you have to offer a free sample to everyone, but maybe dedicate a case of a new item or talk to your distributor and see if you can get some free samples yourself and randomly offer them to your regular or best customers and see what happens. If you have a POS system you can really track the response rate over the next few weeks. Another way to track results is to offer a free sample to dine-in customers if they will fill out a small card telling you what they thought of the new product.

Billy Graham says that one way he increased his average ticket sales was through employee incentives. His sales were about $5,500 a week and he offered to put all of his employees into a drawing for $50 if sales went over $8,000. "Sales did go up." Billy said, but he says he still prefers flyers. Increasing sales can be accomplished three ways; increase the number of customers, increase prices or sell more to the customers you have. Higher prices can cause you to lose customers and increasing volume takes time and money recruiting new patrons. The simplest and easiest way is to sell more to existing customers. It's difficult to get them to buy more pizza, but through bundled deals, promotions and a little creativity, additional appetizer sales can be the tool that increases average ticket sales $3, $4 or $5. Multiply that times the number of orders each week!

Self Contained Fryers

AutoFry
Gary Santos
508-653-0082
Fax: 508-653-1736
gsantos@autofry.com
www.autofry.com

Perfect Fry Company
Gary Calderwood
800-265-7711
Fax: 403-255-1725
gary@perfectfry.com
www.perfectfry.com

Phone Messaging Systems

Fidelity
800-683-5600
www.fidelity.com

Message on Hold
800-392-4664

Muzak
800-331-3340
www.muzak.com

Appetizer Companies

Anchor Foods
800-POPPERS
www.anchorfoods.com

Bell Carter Olive Company
800-252-3557
www.lindsayolives.com

The Cheesecake Factory
818-871-3000
www.thecheesecakefactory.com

Cluck U Chicken
732-438-1900
Fax: 732-438-0055

Dominex "The Eggplant People"
800-282-1030 ext. 13
Products: Eggplant Sticks
and Eggplant Wedges

J&J Snack Foods Corp
856-665-9533
www.jjsnack.com

La Nova Wings
716-881-3355
www.lanova.com

McCain
800-952-4432
www.mccainusa.com

Sargento
800-795-7090
www.sargentofoodservice.com

Tampa Maid Foods
800-462-5896 ext. 350
www.tampamaid.com

Wahoo Appetizers
800-282-4834
www.appetizer.com

WesTom Corporation
800-411-7173
Fax: 208-587-8113
dmoore43@earthlink.net

Windsor Frozen Foods
800-437-6936
www.windsorfoods.com