Some operators dig deep for marketing ideas and run with them even if they’re a little unorthodox. If your promotions can make your customers laugh and you offer a superior product, they’ll keep coming back for more. After all, you don’t have to keep up with The Big Three—just compete in your neighborhood. Or at least that’s how Paul and Debbie Gainor, the owners of Pizza Zone (, a two-unit independent in Spring, Texas, feel about the pickup and delivery business today. 

In the suburbs of Houston, this husband-and-wife duo have spent the last decade marketing their product to area families who love quality ingredients and a little flair. With fundraising programs for local schools, online ordering, and a constant barrage of door hangers, flyers, box toppers and social media, this small chain’s marketing reminds people that pizza is about having fun. On some days, you might find Debbie dancing in an elementary school parking lot wearing a pizza slice costume. On Penguin Awareness Day, you might notice the entire staff is dressed in black and white. And for National Funny Hat Day, you can only imagine the getups on display. To dive deeper into Pizza Zone’s marketing approach, PMQ tracked down Debbie for a chat. 

Tell us about your school programs. 

We designate certain nights of the month for local schools. We provide the school with flyers and stickers and encourage kids to order pizza that night. Then we donate 20% of the sales back to the school. It’s a great fundraiser for them. 

The schools advertise this to the students?

Some are more aggressive than others. Some schools take our signs and post them in the parking lot so the parents can also see them. A lot of schools will put it on the marquee, announcing our pizza nights. Last December, we got a pizza slice costume, and I started going to one of the elementary schools dressed as “the pizza lady.” I went during their lunch hour and waved a sign and asked them to tell their parents to order pizza on pizza night. Then I was out in the parking lot during pickup so the parents could see me when they come in the driveway. It was a big hit, and they instantly asked me to come back.

How much do the school nights drive your sales up?

It’s hard to say. One thing that I’ve discovered about marketing is that sometimes your target isn’t always where you get attention from. It’s like you put a vibe out into the universe and it tells everyone else to order pizza. Some school nights, we’ll be really busy, but then when we run the report, we’ll find out that most of our orders came from other places. We’ve also discovered that with our door hanging. We’ll put a lot out in a certain neighborhood, have a great night, then realize the orders weren’t coming from that neighborhood. It’s weird.

Do you think those sales come indirectly?

Yeah! Sometimes we just laugh and say, “Just do marketing, any marketing,” and we’ll tune in to some part of the universe and make them want to buy pizza tonight. It’s not scientific.

What’s your target market?

Both of our stores attract middle-class families. We don’t have a college here or a large population of young people. Our hours are cut due to our demographic area. We’re not open late at night, because it’s just that kind of neighborhood.

What’s the advantage of your Pizza of the Month special?

It brings a little variety. When we first started, it was slow. But now it’s so much fun because people will call or get on Facebook to ask, “What’s the pizza of the month?” We’ve gotten some pretty cool toppings in here. We’ve put sauerkraut and mustard on pizza, we’ve put hummus on a pizza. It’s kind of like a taste-testing tool to see about adding new menu items. We did a baked potato pizza once, and it was so popular we decided to keep bringing it back a couple times a year. So many people wanted it, we recently decided to put it on our menu full-time.

Tell us about your box toppers.

For six years, we had a quarterly newsletter, but the postage costs got too high. So now what we do is an abbreviated letter that we put on our box toppers. It just made sense because social marketing has gotten so much bigger, and I kept running out of things to say in a newsletter because I was already saying them on Facebook or saying them in an email blast. There wasn’t enough information, and it was just cheaper to do it with social media. It’s also better for our wacky holiday specials.

What are your wacky holiday specials?

We started doing those last year for about three days a month. We’re trying to make people aware of some of the nontraditional holidays and make those days special for pizza. For instance, last January we had Penguin Awareness Day, so we came up with a special where anyone who came in the store wearing white and black got to buy our pepperoni rolls for $1 when they bought three or more. On Book Lovers Day, we handed out free Pizza Zone bookmarks; on Comic Book Day, we handed out some comics; and on Chocolate Chip Cookie Day, we handed out free cookies with every order.

How do your employees feel about these holidays?

They get behind it 100%. We had a Crazy Hat Day and had a competition to see who could make the craziest hat. The winner got a prize, and we encouraged our customers to come in with their best hats, too. In this day and age, you really have to think outside the box to reach your customers.

What are the advantages of making your print materials in-house?

I don’t know that we save money, but we’re not in the position to do volume. Also, we like to change up our specials, so we don’t want to commit to 10,000 pieces. It’s a safeguard against a bad offer, and allows us to customize our hangers and flyers to where we’re distributing them. We might pick out an apartment complex of the week, for example. We want them to say, “Wow, this is just for us.”

Do you use coupons?

You have menu prices for a reason. But we’re in a time when The Big Three want to make their pizzas $10, and it’s hard for the independents to compete. Sometimes the customer doesn’t understand. They think pizza is pizza. But we don’t get volume prices, and we’re also buying the best ingredients we can get. So we’ve discovered that we do have to coupon to keep people coming. But if you read our reviews online, people say we’re a little more expensive than other places, but we serve really good pizza.

Do you have any words of wisdom for fellow operators?

You have to keep marketing constantly and keep your name out there. Put out something every single day, even if it’s small, like a Facebook posting or an email blast. It’s hard to do, but it makes all the difference.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor