Mile-high pie

Some say true entrepreneurs see opportunity where others see nothing. In 2005, when John Burr—the owner of a recording studio—saw an available building in a nearly desolate industrial neighborhood of Denver, he also saw the opportunity to fuse his love of music and thin-crust pizza. The end result was The Walnut Room (thewalnutroom.com), a pizzeria/concert venue that, after slow beginnings, got people murmuring about live shows—then traveling from outside the city to see what all the fuss was about. And, with a recently opened second location in the heart of downtown Denver, it’s becoming clear that while many customers may have originally come for the music, they quickly grew fond of the food as well. For Burr, marketing is about consistency, pricing, entertainment and, most importantly, vibe. People have a good time when they enter The Walnut Room, and he wants to keep it that way. How did you end up promoting both pizza and live music? I have another business that leases out rehearsal studios to local bands—I have 25 rehearsal studios—and, eventually, I wanted to create a venue where those artists could perform. That’s what got the idea rolling: having The Walnut Room be performance-based, and because in Colorado you have to serve food to serve alcohol, I developed the pizzeria.

How are your two locations different?

The original location is quite a bit bigger than our new one. It has a music venue that can hold up to 200 people, with a full-service bar and a patio for another 80 people. The downtown location is just one room that seats 75 people and has a singer/songwriter area in the corner. The downtown location is more of a pizzeria than a venue, really. It does not have a full-service bar—just beer and wine, because I wanted to stay away from opening another bar downtown. We wanted to focus on the food. We opened the second location in February, and we just turned our first profit last August.

What drives business to the original pizzeria?

Our original location is definitely a destination kind of trip. It’s located in an industrial neighborhood that is slowly being gentrified into a more residential area. But back when I opened, there wasn’t much going on there at all. We created a location for some of the residents that were already here, because there were no other options. Also, for anyone who came out to a show, it was vital that they be able to get something to eat and to drink, because they couldn’t just walk out the door and go somewhere else.

How do the pizzeria and the concert hall coexist during a show?

Anybody who is going to see a show can take food back with them, but they can’t hear their name called when the food is ready, so it’s up to them to come out of the venue to check on their meal. Other than that, nothing changes. There is an order window and a pickup window. People will either hang out at the bar or on the patio.

Do you offer regular specials?

We do one nearly every day. The biggest reason for originally coming up with our specials was to get people down here. A lot of competing bars and restaurants in Denver offer some kind of meal deal every day, so we had to sweeten our offerings. Another part of it is, we’re independently owned. I’m the only owner, and we have little money for advertising and marketing.

What is the most popular special?

Our $5 lunch deal, offered Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. That gets you a half sandwich and a soup or salad with a nonalcoholic drink, or a 10” one-topping pizza with salad and drink. We’re barely making any money on it, but it’s advertising for us. We get so many people in the door that wouldn’t have otherwise come in, due to our location. This doesn’t apply to our other location, because it’s in downtown Denver. Once people try our food, they love it and come back after work or on the weekends to see some live music, so I wouldn’t call it a loss at all.

Do you have a marketing coordinator and budget?

For the shows, we have a “street team” that puts flyers and posters up around the city. All of our printed materials for the pizzeria are made in-house. We also advertise in two publications here in town—the alternative weeklies. The Walnut Room used to spend upwards of $40,000 a year on advertising. Now I try to keep it down around $10,000. I try to pick and choose when it comes to buying ads. I used to try and do something in all of the magazines and newspapers, but now I run only one or two ads every few months. We rely heavily on our website and our email blasts.

What’s your take on social media marketing?

I feel pretty unopinionated about the whole thing. We don’t see a big return on it. We use Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, but it’s mostly for the music. The best marketing tool for us is giving a great experience when someone comes in the door. I haven’t really found anything that I think is really fair for the return on investment with advertising; I feel like it’s overpriced, and this is a small operation, so it’s difficult to come up with the money to do any crazy marketing.

How would you describe your pizzeria’s vibe?

It’s a very casual, relaxed atmosphere with friendly and outgoing service. It’s not a quick-serve place where you’re totally ignored unless you’re at the counter ordering. Our bartenders and cashiers will get out and bus your table; we don’t have servers. There is quite a bit of interaction between the employees and customers, and people like that.

Is it hard booking good bands?

Initially, we had a hard time getting any bands, but slowly we were able to start booking more local bands; then we started to get more regional and national acts. We have built a name for ourselves in that we can book a lot of up-and-coming artists that you haven’t quite heard of yet, but then within a year they will be too big to play at The Walnut Room. We’ve done shows with Chris Isaak and Jewel. We’ve also booked Mike Dougherty, and the list goes on.

What are your thoughts on coupons?

Most of the coupons we do are in conjunction with property management companies. I will offer 15% off to all of their tenants. They just have to show proof they live in any of these properties. The only other coupons we do are through quick email blasts, but I don’t see a huge return on that.

Is there a reason you specialize in thin-crust pizza?

I’m a foodie. I love to cook. The recipe was mine from scratch, and because our original location had a tiny kitchen, we didn’t have room to do much else. When I came up with the idea, my main motivation was a pizza I grew up eating that had a cracker crust with cornmeal on it. Nobody else has a real thin-crust pizza in Denver. Most make an East Coast-style that’s thin-crust but still uses quite a bit of dough. Our menu has grown, though: We started with two sizes of pizza, eight toppings and one salad. Now we have more than 20 toppings, 18 specialty pizzas, 10 to 15 specialty sandwiches, appetizers and two house salads.

Do you have a five-year plan?

Some days I would love to see more locations, and other days I’m very content with what I have. I just want to keep growing, and I hope someone will come along and buy it, eventually. I’m working really hard to take care of it.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.