Pizza's prodigy

Back in January, at the U.S. Pizza Team tryouts in New York City, I was walking to Lombardi's Pizza, the oldest pizzeria in America, with some of the guys who were competing. I was talking to a guy named George. We were talking about the pizza business and I asked him about their sales. He mentioned that they do about $12,000 a week. "Nice," I thought to myself. "Does this kid work for you," I asked, pointing to the young guy behind me. "He's my boss." "You mean the manager?" I asked. "No, he's the owner." I looked back, somewhat flabbergasted at how young he looked. "Excuse me for a minute, George." I stepped back and asked, "You're 19 years old? And own the pizzeria?"

At first, I just thought this would be an interesting conversation. How much can a kid know about running a business? Obviously a lot more than you or I may think. As we walked and talked, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only was he telling me about some great ideas for getting his sales figures up, his attitude blew me out of the water. He wasn't arrogant, he didn't brag, he didn't act like he knew everything there was to know about the pizza business…he more or less flipped the conversation and began asking me questions. I called him a couple of months later to see how things were going. I started getting so much good information, I left the office two days later, headed to Fort Mill, S.C., to interview him.

Siler owns Ice Cream & Pizza Works. He has some great ideas and strategies for increasing sales. He also does quite well selling ice cream in addition to pizzas, subs and desserts. While focusing on his store and current sales, he is also staging his business to expand with multiple locations.

NEIGHBORHOOD MARKETING

"When we first opened, our sales were at $13,000 and then dropped off to about $8,000 after the first couple of months," Siler says. "I started driving around different neighborhoods on Saturdays. I would pick one that was on the outside of our delivery area and go through with one of my delivery guys and physically count all of the houses. Sunday night, I would make up a flyer on my computer inviting them to try a large one-topping pizza for free. I let them decide if they wanted to come in and eat, get it for takeout or have it delivered. The neighborhoods ranged from 200 to 400 houses. I printed out the flyers on my computer using different colors of paper and drove through the neighborhood putting them in the mailboxes.

"Using my P.O.S. system, I tracked how many of the flyers were redeemed. It was amazing. Out of the free offers, I was getting about 75 percent of them back. I kept watching the numbers and about 85 percent of those taking the initial offer became repeat customers."

"We did this until we hit all of the existing neighborhoods in our delivery area. The free pizzas gave us a food cost of about 35 percent, but when we stopped, our food costs dropped back to 30 percent. We still do this on occasion when a new neighborhood opens or sales fall off in one we once sold a lot to. From the time sales fell off after opening, it took about five months to get them back up to $12,000. We knew the initial sales were part of the 'new' rush, but we took our time and decided what we wanted to do and monitored how well what we were doing was working.

"There are a couple of things I do to make sure people don't copy the sheets and try to get more than one free pizza. First I track the redemptions in my P.O.S. by phone number. I also stamp each flyer with a rubber stamp that helps identify copies."

Here's another great idea. Each Friday, he goes to a new neighborhood and places a small sign in the grass where cars enter the main road. The sign is simply made of a coated corrugated board with a wire stand to stick it in the ground. It is about 2' x 3' and has "Ice Cream & Pizza Works" on it. "We put these signs out on Friday and pick them up Sunday night," Siler says. "It is a cheap way of getting our name out there and letting people know where we are."

MENUS

"When we first opened, I had our to-go menus done in full color," Siler says. "This got expensive, so I made a couple of changes. First, I went to a black and white menu, but the thing that really worked was adding a couple of coupons to them." On the right side of the menu, he added a foldout with three coupons. He says more people are picking up the menus and taking them home since the addition of the coupons. Some of the offers are for a free 2-liter with the purchase of two large pizzas, free small order of wings with the purchase of a large combo or Works, or free small order of wings and 2-liter soda with the purchase of two large combos or Works pizzas.

Siler has also found that by clipping a daily special inside the dine-in menus, he can boost sales of higher profit items or something new he has added to the menu. He says this makes sure the specials are seen and ensures the customer sees what the specials are without having to worry about the waitstaff forgetting to tell them. "We offer a different special each day, but there are some permanent specials we have for each day of the week," Siler says.

LUNCH BUFFETS

Siler says one of the biggest hits with daytime customers is the all-youcan- eat lunch buffet. On his buffet, he usually keeps five or six pizzas, a couple of pastas and ravioli. Because this is a rapidly growing area, he says many construction workers come in for lunch. "These guys come in two or three times a week," Siler says. "They are workers and are looking for something fast, affordable and lots of it. For $6, they get full. With the pizzas and pastas, they can get something different each time. We have a couple of pastas and include some cold pasta in the hot summer months. The key is variety. We charge an additional $2 if customers want a salad with the buffet.

"I'll let you in on one of our little secrets. I wanted to add another pasta-type dish. One of the guys here joked that we should just use a name brand ravioli on the buffet. We took some of the large cans of ravioli and put them in a buffet tray, covered them with cheese and baked them. You wouldn't believe how customers eat the stuff up. It is cheap and easy for me to make and puts something else on the buffet."

 

DESSERTS

 

Here's an interesting twist to desserts: banana pudding and pound cake. Siler said his grandmother made a pound cake and he placed it on the counter. He was amazed at how fast customers ate it up with ice cream, so he decided to make it a special. "People started ordering whole pound cakes," Siler says. "My grandmother makes them and they only cost $2 each to make. This worked so well I had her make some of her banana pudding to see how it would sell. She makes it in catering trays and we sell it for $1.25 per scoop. I can get about 20 servings out of a tray. I have sold over six trays of it in just two weeks. The offer is simple and low-cost and really goes with the ice cream side of business. It is another thing they can order when they are finished with pizza."

ICE CREAM

Ice Cream & Pizza Works started out as just an ice cream store. The original owner, Carol Kessler, had an ice cream shop and needed to do more business. She added pizza and this is where Siler started working at about the age of 14. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to pizza cook, eventually convincing Carol to sell him the recipes and opening his own pizzeria. Ice cream has always been part of the concept and sells well with great profit margins, but wasn't enough on its own.

"Ice cream is a big asset to our business," Siler says. "We buy from Hershey because they gave us the cooler to use as long as we buy from them each week. I pay $18 for a three-gallon tub and can get about 60 scoops out of it. We sell it for $1.75 a scoop, but customers can pay extra for waffle cones and toppings. We sell banana splits, sundaes and cones. You may think that ice cream doesn't sell well in the winter months, but our biggest day for ice cream sales was on a snow day. Don't ask why, but it really was."

POOL PARTIES

The ice cream side of business has opened up other avenues for profits. In the summer months, several communities in the Charlotte, N.C./Fort Mill, S.C. area have swim teams. "I went and spoke with the coaches and offered to donate six or seven pizzas for them to sell," Siler says. "They sell the slices and raise money for their teams, but they also let me sell ice cream at pool parties and swim meets. I have an ice cream cart with wheels that we load into the back of a truck and take out to the pools. I more than make up for the cost of the pizzas with ice cream sales. While I am there I do dough-tossing demonstrations and pass out menus. They also call me when they have meetings and parties. There was one group of about 80 in here a week ago."

 

RECRUITING EMPLOYEES

 

"When we opened, I went to the school principal and told him I wanted to hire the quarterbacks, class presidents from each class and the honor students," Siler says. "We wanted the smartest and most popular people to work here. The day I held interviews, I had 30 people, and hired 28 of them. We got the leaders. The parents appreciated us giving them jobs and keeping them off the streets, and where the popular kids go, the rest follow."

USING THE P.O.S.

"Even though I haven't mastered all of the tools it has, my P.O.S. (Rockland's DiamondTouch) is an important part of my business," says Siler. "With the internal driver management system, I can check the delivery times. We shoot for 30-minute deliveries and I can get the average times for each individual driver. I also use it to clock everyone in and out and keep track of my payroll. Probably the most important feature is the sales reports. At any time of the day, I can see where we are, what is selling, and what isn't. If something isn't selling, I can go to the staff and get them to push the item. I also use the inventory controls and they come out pretty close. The inventory controls come out at about 90 percent of the actual inventory.

 

"Another good thing about the system is how it can help in customer relations. When they call, I have my employees ask how their last order was and make sure they are happy with things. We answer the phone and use their last names. This trips customers out and helps with the one-on-one relationships more than just asking if we can take their order."

 

LEARNING TO BE A BUSINESSMAN

Even though Siler is young, he knows a thing or two about running a business. He started working in the original Ice Cream & Pizza Works when he was 14. When he was 18, he told the owner he wanted to buy her recipes and name and open his own pizzeria. His mom, Lee Chapman, who also worked there doing some bookkeeping and working in the restaurant, told him that if he could get the money, then go right ahead. "Siler came back about a month later and said he had the money," Lee says. "Siler is a go-getter. Once he puts his mind to something, there is no stopping him. It may be because of his age, but he doesn't think about failure or think things won't happen, he just does it. He used to be into motocross racing, and was quite good. He could have been the best if he wouldn't have broke his back, but he traveled the country with his grandfather racing and learned a lot about being a grown-up on the professional circuit."

Professional? He never mentioned being that good in all of the conversations I had with him, so I went to his grandfather to see how good he was. "Siler was real good," Al Roach, Siler's grandfather said. "He raced for five years in the 125 class and had some major sponsors like Suzuki. Most of the riders had their own mechanics that traveled with them, but Siler did his own work. He also worked with the sponsors. Those guys don't give $30,000 to a kid who doesn't know what they are doing. The motocross industry taught him a lot about being responsible, being a businessman and growing up."

I went to Siler and asked him why he had not mentioned all of this. "I don't like to brag about that stuff," Siler said. "When I was racing, I was leading the points standing and all I had to do was show up for the final race and I would have been first in the world in my class. Before the last race, I had a bike come off of a jump and land on top of me and broke half of my body. I couldn't race, but still ended up third overall."

Now that Siler is a business owner, he has had to learn a few tricks and traps. "When I was building my store, contractors wanted to give me the runaround," Siler says. "I just had to stand my ground and get things done my way. I want things perfect and I can blow-off easily. I have had to learn to cool down and understand things won't always be that way, just develop corrective habits. I also learned that you couldn't be employees' friend and boss at the same time. I have to be consistent in the way I treat everyone. I hired friends, but learned real quick that was a mistake. They think the rules don't always apply to them and some try to take advantage of me. I just don't hire my friends anymore. I have also had to learn that people can be envious and jealous when you are my age and a business owner.

"There are some good things to being young. I have ambition and the want to be bigger and better. I don't have the notion that I know it all like some older business owners do. I listen and try to learn to be better. Sure, it takes a lot of my social life away right now, but in 10 years I won't have to be here all of the time."

WHERE HE'S HEADED

With all of the publicity from trying out for the U.S. Pizza Team and being in the newspapers and on TV, Siler has caught the attention of Chris Weinberg. Chris is the President and Founder of the BarFly Group (thebarflygroup.com), a restaurant and bar consulting group.

Chris has been involved in the successful ownership and operations of several restaurant and bar concepts. He has served as the COO of the Fox and Hound Restaurant chain and as the President of Stool Pigeon's Restaurants as well as others.

"We are real picky about who we take on," says Chris. "We only take about six or seven clients at a time, usually with one to 15 units each, and help them maximize their operations. In addition to operational expertise, we have a human resources expert, marketing director, a computer (IT) director, and a strategic business planner. My partners and I have been together for more than seven years. Some of the things that attracted me to Siler's operation were his food, his location and his celebrity status from his motocross days. All of the kids know him and he knows all of the big name racers. We are going to use that asset as we put systems in place to build a motocross themed operation. He is such a modest guy and he underestimates this power.

"We are going to start by getting his management style honed, then set up the operating systems and brand his concept. The branding is going to be a big part of this, but he has all of the elements we need to make this a successful run. We are shooting to open the next location within the next year." Siler says it his goal to have 10 locations, all placed within 20 miles of each other so his delivery radius for each store meets.

U.S. PIZZA TEAM

"I am going to keep coming to the U.S. Pizza Team trials," Siler says. "It has given me so much publicity, plus I get to meet and talk with the leaders of the pizza industry. I am looking at putting a team together and have been practicing myself. I have one guy, Rich McPeek, who is getting good at dough tossing. The customers love it and the kids from the schools come in and recognize us from doing demonstrations at the pool parties and at schools. I am going to make the team." I am sure he will eventually make the team…and get those 10 locations.