Jason and Kristi Beer (above) encourage customers to paint original designs on pizza pans, which help create Pizza by the Sea’s distinctive, off-kilter vibe.
It’s a good thing Jason and Kristi Beer, owners of the three-unit Pizza by the Sea in the Florida Panhandle, like children—they’ve got a lot of them. No, they’re not one of those reality TV clans with 19 rugrats and counting. Only two children actually carry the Beer surname, but dozens more—often shirtless, barefooted and loud—can be seen running in and out of Pizza by the Sea on any given day, and, as far as Jason and Kristi are concerned, they’re all part of the family.
Without resorting to giant mechanized mascots and noisy arcade rooms, Pizza by the Sea, which has two locations in Santa Rosa Beach and one in Panama City Beach, is easily one of the most kid-friendly pizza companies in the nation. Bright, colorful images of little ones dominate the company’s branding, particularly on its website and social media. The “Very Happy Meals” menu features kid-size pizzas—including cheese, pepperoni and a cheeseburger pie topped with pickles, ketchup and mustard—as well as spaghetti and meatballs and perhaps the simplest yet shrewdest menu selection you can imagine for children: a small plate of noodles and butter with a breadstick, sold for the same price ($4.99) as a plain cheese pizza.
“This place can be very loud, very rambunctious,” Jason admits. “I always chuckle when I see an online review about how crowded and loud it is, where someone says, ‘There are too many kids there.’ Well, that’s exactly what our brand is. It’s fun, whimsical and very family-friendly.”
“If you’re looking for a quiet, romantic dinner,” Kristi adds, with a laugh, “this probably isn’t the place for you.”
Pizza by the Sea co-owner Kristi Beer and photographer Jacqueline Ward work with local children to create bright, colorful images for the restaurant’s marketing and social media.
Not Your Typical Pizza Family
The Beers are not your typical pizza family, with roots that reach back for generations. Although Kristi has Italian heritage, neither worked in the pizza business until they came across Pizza by the Sea, then a single-unit operation located on Florida’s coastal Highway 30A, in 2011. Both devout Christians who engage in global missionary work in their spare time, they had recently sold off their chain of gas stations in Indiana and were looking for new opportunities, preferably somewhere on the sunny side of life. “We had vacationed in this area before,” Jason says. “You always hear about people who have a dream of moving to the beach. Why should we be any different? We checked out some business brokerage sites and, lo and behold, Pizza by the Sea was for sale. We weren’t necessarily looking for a restaurant. But we got on a plane to see what this place was all about, and we fell in love with it.”
Despite their lack of restaurant experience—Jason’s more of a business and finance guy, while Kristi is a former teacher—the Beers knew a moneymaker when they saw one. “It was something I hadn’t seen before—very kid-focused but beach-funky,” Jason says. “Not only was the food delicious, but it was already a great brand. When we bought it, we kept the entire team. All the pistons were firing, so why change anything?”
In a few years, the Beers had added two more locations, each with key traits in common, including orange walls, a turquoise bull’s-eye tabletop pattern and customer-decorated pizza pans lining the walls (see the sidebar on page 36). But each store is different, too—the original location occupies 1,200 square feet in a strip mall, plus a patio, and sits next to a Publix supermarket. The second location, called Gulf Place, has an indoor kitchen with all outdoor seating and a green area that serves as a playground for the little ones. The newest location on Seacrest Beach is located in a little town center that has an amphitheater with a lot of foot traffic. “Each location is similarly sized, with 40 to 50 seats, but each has its own atmosphere,” Jason says. “I wanted to prove this concept in a variety of locations, to show that it could work anywhere you want it to, within reason.”
So far, so good. Each store has been warmly received by locals, who help keep the doors open even when all of the tourists have disappeared for the winter. “They take care of us all year round, so we really try to cater to them,” Jason says. “A lot of restaurants lay off their staff during the winter because they can’t afford to pay them, but we can keep our team together. That really helps with the consistency of quality and food.”
Pies such as the Kickin’ Chicken are favorites for adults and children alike.
Breezy, Playful Images
Jason is the business mind behind Pizza by the Sea, while Kristi handles the marketing. Never mind that she had zero experience in that field—she turned out to be a natural. She manages the company’s social media and directs the regular photo shoots that give Pizza by the Sea’s marketing materials such a distinctive and appealing vibe. “When we took over the pizzeria, I met [local photographer] Jacqueline Ward and was really impressed with her photos,” Kristi recalls. “She said, ‘I would love to do photography for your business—we’ll trade pizza for pictures.’”
Talk about a great deal. Ward’s knack for working with children and Kristi’s innate marketing smarts proved a formidable combination, a match made in social media heaven. Thanks in large part to the power of these breezy, playful images, Pizza by the Sea’s Facebook page has nearly 5,000 fans, while more than 3,000 people follow its Instagram account. Kristi and Ward work together on the shoots, with Kristi essentially acting as art director. The Beers personally know all of the kid models, largely family friends and customers.
The key to a successful shoot, Kristi says, is to hang back, snap a lot of photos and let the kids be kids. “We let them pick out what they want to wear,” she says. “Obviously, we want bright, vibrant colors, something with a beach vibe to it, but we want them to be comfortable so they can enjoy themselves, just eating pizza, playing and being kids. We try to do a few posed shots, but some of the best ones we get are candid shots of the kids just hanging out and doing their thing with pizza. It always works out, and the pictures look great.”
The Beers believe firmly in the power of neighborhood marketing. Instead of spending their budget on direct mail, they reinvest that money in the community, especially in the local schools during the off season. Pizza by the Sea has helped raise money for iPads for area students and hosts Half-Price Pizza Nights for a nonprofit called Food for Thought. “When we got here, we had no idea there was a problem with food security in this area,” Kristi says. “Food for Thought collects food donations and makes backpacks on Fridays for kids who may not have enough food at home for the weekends. So we offer half-price pizzas to anyone who brings in food donations for the backpacks. We also sponsor the group’s volunteer kickoff at the beginning of the school year and their annual golf tournament.”
Kids sports teams can count on Pizza by the Sea, too, and a number of soccer and Little League teams wear the company’s trademark “Yum” logo on their jerseys. “We also sponsor teams that sometimes don’t get a lot of attention, like the wrestling team or gymnastics, as compared to football and volleyball,” Jason says. “And we sponsor and hold benefit nights for some smaller nonprofits that may not get as much attention as the big groups. We’ll give them 20% of our sales, and they get a forum to introduce people to their causes.”
The company also sends out a weekly e-newsletter to its list of about 2,000 customers. “It goes out every Wednesday morning with our Thankful Thursday discount for the next day, plus other announcements and specials,” Kristi says. “Customers can sign up for the newsletter on our website, plus we have a sign-up on the counter at each location, which is where the majority of people sign up.”
Catch the Wave: 4 Super-Awesome Things About Pizza by the Sea
1. Pizza Without the Crust. Customers on diets can order hot, delicious Yum Bowls (pictured, right), featuring all of the fresh, savory toppings and cheeses of any pizza on the menu, minus the crust. “It’s one of our most popular items for people who’ve gone gluten-free or who are cutting back on carbohydrates,” says Pizza by the Sea co-owner Kristi Beer.
2. What’s the Magic Word? Customers have to know a secret code word to receive Pizza by the Sea’s Thankful Thursday discount, and the only way to get the secret code is to subscribe to its weekly e-newsletter. “It’s a carrot, if you will, to get them to read the content,” says co-owner Jason Beer.
3. Something for Every Kid. Kids can play with hula hoops, express themselves with coloring sheets and even browse for reading material on the restaurant’s bookshelves. Or if they just want to run around and wreak havoc, that’s cool, too. “We’re the place that allows kids to be kids,” Jason says. “People tell us, ‘We go to Pizza by the Sea because we can bring our kids and don’t have to worry about keeping them quiet.’”
4. A Pan-oramic View. For a $7 refundable deposit, customers can turn a plain 12” pizza pan into a personalized work of art. The pans adorn the walls at all three Pizza by the Sea stores. “You can advertise your business or your organization by decorating the pans or just do it for fun,” Kristi says. “They range from highly professional to little doodles. People love to come in and see their artwork on the walls. It’s a fun way to decorate, and it connects our customers to our store.”
Living Their Faith
The Pizza by the Sea owners make no secret of the fact that they are Christians—many of their social media posts carry a strong message of faith—and a missionary organization called 12 Churches, which provides on-the-ground aid in Nicaragua, is another favorite cause. “We use our business as a platform to make people aware of different opportunities and ways that they can serve others outside of the community,” Kristi says.
The Beers have no plans for further expansion, but they’re always open to new possibilities. The first step is to make sure they’ve got a solid management team in place, Jason says. “If you don’t have a good team in any business, you’re not going to be successful. I can’t say enough about our team, from our managers, cooks and counter staff to our cashiers, bussers and dishwashers. Everyone tries their hardest, and they all want to take good care of the customers. I attribute the lion’s share of our success to our team.”
In fact, the Beers did not originally plan to expand the Pizza by the Sea concept at all. “We’d had nine gas stations, so we were looking to slow down and live the beach life,” Jason says. “But our team was talented, and we had ladies and gentlemen who wanted to advance and grow. If you don’t keep these people challenged, they’re going to move on. So, for that reason, we’ve grown the brand to three locations. If we find we have a team that we can open another location with, we’ll be glad to do it.”
For now, though, they’re happy where they are and see their business as both a livelihood and a way to share their faith with—and set a good example for—others. “It really is a ministry opportunity at the local level, and it allows us to do our global mission work as well,” Kristi says.
Jason agrees. “This has been a great blessing from God. He’s given us this business as a means to do our ministry, to do that outreach and to love on people. You can boil Christianity down to two things: Love God, and love people. This business helps us do both, and we’re grateful for it.”