Joe Calcagno is a pro. He knows and loves the pizza business. He's also a character. He's fast talking, full of energy and ideas, and so….well… New York. If you listen carefully for a minute you'll get two minutes worth of information. When someone like Joe has learned to make it in New York the way he has, you know he has learned a few things along the way. And fortunately for our readers he was good enough to share some of his well learned lessons with us.
Here is some of what we learned during a tour of his highly successful Manhattan store located on 2nd Avenue at 32nd St. Calcagno's La Bellas Pizza restaurant was selected by the New York Post as the "Best of Manhattan", quite an honor when you realize that he is up against some of the toughest competition in the world. But "having a great pizza is only part of the success formula", Calcagno said there are five things you must have.
- Reasonable prices.
- Clean facilities.
- Friendly demeanor. And of course
- Good food.
You must have all of these things to succeed. It's better to be good at all of these things than to be great in one area but lack in another.
Location. Location. Location.
In Joe's search for his best choice of location, he took a busy Manhattan corner location with great visibility, especially with his creative use of awnings as seen in picture. The density of people in the surrounding area is outstanding.
His prices are not the cheapest, when compared to nearby Domino's, his prices are relatively expensive. However, his customers expect to pay a little more for quality and thankfully when they pay extra they are reinforcing the idea that this is indeed a quality restaurant.
Clean glass, spotless floors, and equipment that shines. To Joe, a clean store is a welcome mat while a dirty store is a "Customer, go to hell sign." The kind of customers he wants feel comfortable and safe here.
Friendly? In New York? You bet. Here it's even more valuable to customers and you'll find La Bella's a friendly experience. Everyone here employs the "Know Your Customer Strategy".
This goes without saying. Good food use to be point of difference, now it is a minimum requirement. Great recipes prepared with care and served at the right temperature. The right food. Change and test menu. Never serve anything you don't love yourself.
Some times you have to be a tough guy!
Besides these basics, Joe has had the occasion to solve some unusual problems during the last 25 years of his pizza career. Like the time a competitor kept fliering his parking lot.
After warning a competitor three times not to flier his customer's cars while parked in his own parking lot, he decided to take action. The next morning he sent a parade of eight drivers to occupy the eight closest parking spots to his competitors door. He then offered free samples of pizza to his competitor's customers. The competitor stopped fliering his lot. Problem solved.
Joe is always asking questions and thinking about ways to get customers to order. It becomes second nature when you take pizza seriously. On garbage day, Joe will drive around and if he sees a pizza box by someone's garbage, he'll flier that house that night.
"At the end of each night we don't throw away food.", said Calcagno "We will deliver it to key people that are up late. We take care of all of the hotel doormen. They recommend our pizza to most guests. We'll send the other food to the fire station or who ever is up late and can eventually be a customer".
"When kids come in my pizzeria, I always give them a little piece of dough to play with. They pull it, stretch it. It keeps them busy and their parents happy".
Joe shoots off another sales building memory from his campus store upstate. It was in a college town and his competition had been there for years and was an institution among the students. In just a few semesters Joe outpaced his competition with a single strategy that made a big difference. He designed a t-shirt that was very cool by student standards, so cool that students would not just collect them but actually wear them. He then came up with a novel way of distributing the t-shirt. Joe bought 1000's of t-shirts gambling that his strategy would work and it did! When drivers would go on campus deliveries they would tie the tee shirts into knots and throw them to randomly scattered students. Now, wearing a t-shirt not only was a way for students to express their good taste but to show that they were lucky winners as well. By the end of the year, the t-shirts were everywhere and the most popular pizza place on campus was his.
Joe, like so many other successful pizza operators schedules his marketing and public relations tasks and gives them important status as if it were a food order or sales tax payment. One program he has in his marketing arsenal is a regular schedule of Kindergarten tours. "The kids come in and we give them a tour of the store", said Calcagno. "They get to help make a pizza. We talk about nutrition and the four basic food groups, the food pyramid and the teachers love it".
Joe leads me into his office while talking a mile a minute and shows me his pharmaceutical book. Yes, a book that has the names and of all area doctors and pharmacy salesman. It also has a schedule of several noon lunches that are scheduled during the next week. Every day pharmacy salesman have to find some way to make a presentation to busy doctors and their staff. And, bringing a good lunch is one way of getting the doctors and staff to work through lunch. So Joe aggressively goes after this lunch segment and has found it well worth the effort.
Know Your Customer Strategy
"Make your customers feel like big shots and they'll bring their friends back with them sooner or later, just to look like big shots in front of their friends," Calcagno said. " When a regular customer comes in you say something like, Hey Vinnie! How are you. Haven't see you in three days. How about a soda while you're waiting, I'm buying today. The soda is practically free to me, but it makes him feel really good.
"When Vinnie bring his buddy in with him next time. You say Hey Vinnie! Good to see you again. What an honor to have you in my store two times this week. Who is your friend? You find out that his friend's name is Johnny. Now when Johnny comes in the next time you treat him like an old friend. Hey Johnny! What's going on, I saved you a great seat. Come and sit down and relax, you look hot. Here's a cold soda, don't worry , its on me."
Joe said that the cycle continues.
"When Johnny comes back with his friends you joke around with him and treat him right and make him feel like a big shot in front of his friends, hell be back every week with a new friend just to show off his status. It works so well. It's so simple but it works. Its just an extra way to build sales and loyalty," Calcagno said.