By Brian Hernandez

Anyone can open a business, but it takes the right systems and processes to manage it efficiently. Michael LaMarca, owner of Cleveland-based Master Pizza and a featured speaker at PMQ’s upcoming Pizza Power Forum on September 4-5, 2024, shared some best practices for developing an operations manual and creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure consistency and a better customer experience.

PMQ: How did you begin the process of writing the manual?  

LaMarca: Anyone writing a new manual should prioritize. Assess what is causing the biggest problems in your store currently and start there. I began creating one new standard a week for one year. We would introduce it to the staff every payday, which was weekly at the time. As an example, one of the first headaches I experienced was people calling in to take the day off right before their shift. I created a standard, saying you have to call off at least four hours before your shift, and I also created an “on-call” shift, so you knew you would be on call should someone call off. This also relieved the stress of scrambling to find a replacement.

Related: 5 expert tips for retaining your pizzeria’s best employees

PMQ: If you’re buying an existing pizzeria, what should you look for as far as their manuals and SOPs are concerned?

LaMarca: It depends on what your plans are for it. If you are completely rebranding it from “Bob’s Pizza” to your own brand, you should write all new SOPs, something in line with your own mission statement. If you are merely taking over an existing brand, you can keep the same SOPs, but you should always be fine-tuning them. You are obviously keeping that brand because it is still successful in your market. You do not want to come in and completely change everything, as your customers will be able to tell it’s not the same. They may like it, they may not, but they’ll notice.

PMQ: When opening a new store, what should you be thinking about when starting the manual?

LaMarca: Figure out what you want to stress to the employees—consistency of products and things like that. The second thing is standardization of your procedures and operations, things like uniforms, lunches, sick time and payday. Then, focus on your cost controls, which is part of making your food-prep manual. Think about labor controls and customer service. How should you greet the customer? How should you answer the phone or handle upset customers? This can take you from operating a pizzeria to managing it. You must have a specific answer for everything—no vagueness. That creates problems and different employees handling everything differently. The customer wants to be able to get the same product, even if they aren’t getting it from their usual location.

PMQ: How long should it take to write a comprehensive SOP manual?

LaMarca: Forever. Your manual is a living, breathing document, and it’s ever-evolving. You should always be fine-tuning it to move your business from good to great. That is actually Master Pizza’s mission statement. This manual should be the beginning of creating a culture in your operation, and as history shows, only evolving cultures survive. 

PMQ: What is the best way to implement new SOPs as they become mandatory? Train everyone at once or train managers first?

LaMarca: Train the trainers first, then let them train the rest of the staff. We would meet every Tuesday as I was writing ours. I would go over the newest weekly policy and make sure they understood why it is important and the correct way to implement and enforce it in-store.

PMQ: If you take over an existing restaurant, how do you train that staff on your new policies? What are the hardest problems to overcome?

LaMarca: I guess the hardest thing for us to overcome was getting trained first by the staff, then having to come back and train them. It wasn’t necessarily hard, just a little awkward. But it is important to understand what they are currently doing and why—the reasons for it—before changing a procedure they already have the muscle memory for. You definitely want to earn the trust of those that trained you to make it easier to train them later. 

PMQ: What makes a good manual? 

LaMarca: Clarity. You can have the biggest, most beautifully designed manual, but it’s worthless if it isn’t easy to use. If you’re in a rush, you need to able to access any answer to any question that may arise as fast as possible. Ease of use is paramount.

PMQ: Do you evaluate your SOPs routinely to make sure they are still current or effective?

LaMarca: All day, every day. We keep our ear to the ground to make sure what we have is still effective. The market is changing daily. Sometimes you don’t have to change anything, but always evaluate it anyway, just to make sure.