• Instead of pinning our hopes on the latest tech tools for marketing, pizzeria owners need to get back to basics and focus on converting first-time visitors into true customers.
  • Can 1,000 likes on social media replace the feeling that a customer gets when they interact with your restaurant’s staff or the overall dining experience that you provide?

Related: Derrick Tung: Paying your pizzeria’s employees well can yield big dividends

By John Patrone
Owner, Patronies Pizza

I remember growing up in the early 1990s before the internet took over. It was pretty much the same as it is today, only without all the notifications dinging from that pocket-sized computer that we now call a phone. If you wanted a pizza, you just called up your neighborhood shop, spoke with a human and placed the order. Better yet, you stopped by the shop and ate there so you could talk with your neighborhood pizza guys for a while.

Today’s customers are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone. Perhaps we are more focused on building our social media following than on our human relationships. Which raises a question for pizzeria owners: In an era where the smartphone is replacing human contact, is it really possible to grow your pizzeria business without social media? The answer is yes, and the results are both gratifying and profitable.

You Can’t Pay the Bills With Likes
Advertising is a crazy thing; you never know if it actually works. Sure, you can attach some kind of offer or coupon to the ad that prompts the customer to tell you they saw it, but that’s hit or miss. How many of those people would have come anyway without the coupon? Will they come back without a coupon next time? Who knows? Maybe or maybe not. So, instead of taking a ride on the advertising roller coaster, we need to focus on converting first-time visitors into true customers. Instead of pinning our hopes on the latest and greatest marketing methods, how about we get back to basics?

this photo shows two generations of Patrones

John Patrone (right) and his father, John Sr.

Look, marketing and advertising are all part of the game, but what good does it do to advertise until you are blue in the face if you are not converting a first-time visitor into a weekly regular? Sure, social media can be useful. You can ask people to tag you in this post or use that hashtag, but do you have the time or the know-how to do it effectively? I’ve read that it takes a spend of $200-$300 per day in social media ads to get desired results. You have to post three to four times per day to stay relevant and tweet five to 20 times per day for people to stay interested.

Then you have to convert likes into sales; after all, you can’t pay the bills with likes. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a pizza guy, not a social media marketer. Yeah, you could hire some young gun with a wizard’s ability on social media, but that can be costly and again, results are hard to quantify.

Related: Meet Katie Collier, the queen of all pizza media in St. Louis

Good Vibrations
I believe the most successful people in the world are the best people-people, meaning those with the best people skills. People like them. The same is true in your business. You’ve probably read an online review for a restaurant that goes something like this: “Exceptional service from a great staff.” When I read that, I ask myself, “What was so exceptional about the service?” I mean beyond bringing the drinks, taking the order, being attentive and smiling, what was exceptional? It was the way the server and the staff made the customer feel. You see, people will remember how you made them feel more than what you said or did.

I have a server who is not the best “technical” server. In fact, he makes more mistakes than any other server. But he also gets more compliments and mentions than any other server. He has more people ask to sit in his section than any other server; more customers know his name than any other server. He has that “little extra” that makes people feel good about their visit and want to spread the word to everyone they know. He is a more valuable marketing tool than any ad or social post could ever be.

So, here’s my point: Can 1,000 likes on social media replace the feeling that a customer gets when they interact with your restaurant’s staff or the overall dining experience that you provide? Those customers that had an “exceptional” experience will then go and tell their friends and family. Heck, they might even share it on social media for you. And that’s way more organic and powerful from a marketing sense. Those customers will come back time and again for that same experience, that same feeling.

Turning Customers into Relationships
The best way to grow your business offline is to focus on taking care of existing customers. You get more bang-for-the-buck converting a first-time customer into a weekly “regular.” Regular, repeat business is what drives you forward. Constantly marketing and advertising only to get one-hit-wonders—customers that come in, try you out and never return—is a waste of time and money.

this photo illustrates the friendly service offered at Patrone's Pizza

Patronies Pizza crew members Siobhan Jackson and Sarah Ashmore

Your customers are looking for something different, something unique. They’re looking for that certain feeling that puts a smile on their face and makes them remember you each time pizza night comes around. I have found that treating your regulars like rock stars is a powerful marketing tool. “Under-promise and over-deliver” is a mantra that we should all live by. Give your customers more than they expect, and you will blow them away. Give five-star service while wearing a simple staff T-shirt, and people will be impressed. They weren’t expecting that.

For example, gift your regulars with a branded coffee mug, a shop T-shirt, or an unexpected free pizza once in a while. They will be amazed at the gesture because none of the corporate or chain shops do anything but take their money. They will think of you when they drink their coffee, proudly advertise your shop as they wear their new T-shirt around town, and tell their friends they got a free pizza just because the day ended in Y. Now you’re turning customers into relationships and profiting along the way. You are adding value to their lives and to your community. Besides, it feels really good to give back to the folks that help support your business. Nothing lives in the Dead Sea because it takes water in, but it doesn’t give any water out. With a little bit of give and take, you will ride a great wave to pizza profits.

Related: This beach-town pizza chain has a picture-perfect strategy for marketing to families

Recipe for Offline Success
Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I long for the days when our towns and cities had more mom-and-pop shops than chain and corporate restaurants. When you could walk into the neighborhood pizza shop and they knew you, your family, your business, and they genuinely cared. In today’s world, in which we are all pressured for more, to do more, to make more, to have more, I think we can all use a slowdown. I think your pizzeria can provide that slowdown for your customers, giving them an experience that they will gladly pay for and tell others about. It’s your way to increased growth for your pizzeria without worrying about how many people liked your wonderfully staged Instagram picture of a pepperoni pizza. Social media is just one of many tools in your bag, and, as any good craftsman will tell you, the right tool for the right job brings the right results.

Advertising and marketing are necessary to a certain point, but the never-ending marketing campaigns and staged social posts mean absolutely nothing if you are not converting your customers into weekly regulars. Ask yourself this, if you could stop advertising today and still grow your business through rock-star regulars, would you?

Your Recipe for Success OFFLINE:

1. Turn first-timers into regulars by…
2. Giving them an experience beyond what they expect and…
3. Treating them like rock stars and…
4. Getting referrals (new customers) from your rock stars.
5. Repeat.

Until next time, keep making and baking with pride.

John Patrone is owner of  Patronies Pizza in Supply, N.C., father of three great kids, and author of the children’s book, Izzy B. Makes a Pizza.

this photo shows the warmth and love of the Patrone family

Shown here with his son John III and daughter Isabella, John Patrone is also the author of the children’s book, Izzy B. Makes a Pizza.

Marketing, Pizza News