Selling More Pizza With Mario's

The Mario’s Pizza you have just taken a bite of is very good. It has personality. It’s spicy like you would expect to find on a Caribbean Island but it’s not too hot. The crust is lighter and thinner than average. The cheese is not the mozzarella that you were expecting but rather a special type of cheddar pizza cheese from New Zealand.

Welcome to Trinidad, the most industrialized island in the Caribbean British West Indies and home to a 12 store pizza chain called Mario’s Pizza. Their pizza has been in development for over 25 years having been adjusted many times to satisfy the tastes of this proud and fun loving island of 1.3 million people.

Don’t forget the Mustard!

Like local customs and languages that have developed differently throughout different parts of the world, pizza too has shown itself to adapt according to local tastes.

Perhaps the most unusual characteristic about pizza consumption in Trinidad is that many patrons love to consume pizza with generous portions of catsup and mustard. That’s because the more popular hamburgers have always been sold where there was pizza. And with plenty of catsup and mustard laying around for use on hamburgers, customers soon discovered another application.

Pizza was practically unknown here in 1972 when Richard Harford opened the first Mario’s Pizza. The inspiration came from two of his partners who became hooked on pizza while attending college in Windsor Ontario. The first store was an immediate success and eventually Harford bought out each partner and began improving and expanding Mario’s Pizza. Today there are 10 company owned stores, 2 franchise operations and plans to cover the Caribbean with the taste that is the regional favorite.

Like every other successful pizza entrepreneur Richard Harford has never been afraid of hard work. Over the years he has put in the hours and continued to challenge himself to be better. He and Mario’s management has always  kept up with the latest in technology, marketing and management. He has attended the Pizza Expo’s and other seminars, read the latest in food service publications, hired quality people, consultants and ad agencies to stay ahead of the competition, knowing full well that one day the major American Pizza chains would be coming to Trinidad.

Richard was nervous but ready when that time came in February of  1994. That’s when Pizza Hut opened their first store in the largest city in Trinidad, Port of Spain. The anticipation of Pizza Hut was long awaited by the population. Although Trinidad is far from the U.S., Island residents have been viewing U.S. TV and watching our pizza commercial for years. It was not surprising that when Pizza Hut opened their doors that customers came flocking. Lines to get in their new building went around the block.  Pizza Hut’s first opening was phenomenal. For two straight months Pizza Hut could not sell enough pizzas to satisfy the waiting crowds. Trinidad had welcomed them with open mouths just as they had KFC years before. KFC was now the fast food market leader (far ahead of McDonalds) and  Pizza Hut felt confident in opening the entire market. But shortly after Pizza Hut began building more stores…..something unexpected began to happen… appeared that Pizza Hut may have misread the market. The enthusiastic reception to Pizza Hut eventually cooled down. Perhaps Pizza Hut had been a victim of their marketing success and overwhelming brand awareness. Although Pizza Hut had been successful in getting customers to try their product they were not as successful in developing Trinidad pizza eaters into long term customers.

In the long run, Pizza Hut Pizza was not a great match for the more lively taste of the two local chains which had by now defined what real Trinidadian pizza should taste like. Today Pizza Hut holds a weak third place in the market behind Trinidad’s second biggest chain, Pizza Boys. Pizza Hut had opened 6 stores but has closed two since their introduction.

What if you could run a 15% labor?

The economics of Pizza here is quite different than in more advanced consumer markets. Where we typically see a 30% food cost and a 25% labor cost, Trinidad breaks this norm. Because labor is so cheap (Workers earn about 1/5 of what American workers earn, a little over 1 U.S. dollar per hour), you may think for a moment that profits would be higher. But forget that……The competitive market here responds not with higher profits for the pizza operators but with lower prices to the consumer. Here it is typical to run a high food of about 40% and a labor of between 15% and 20%.

Mario’s does not have the deep pockets of their competition but it has made a strong commitment to marketing. It budgets and spends 4% of sales consistently on marketing. In Trinidad that goes a long way, especially when it teams up with the Trinidad office of the International McCann Erickson Advertising Agency. The director of the Agency is Fernen who has works very close with Harford and operations director Jerome Marquez to form a Mario’s marketing brain trust. Not only are they business partners but they are good friends as well. Mario’s will come up with what they want to do marketing wise and McCann will give them a hook for an idea and support them with graphics and media placement. Case in point: Before Pizza Hut was about to introduce The Edge to Trinidad, Mario’s wanted to do something to counter the move. The Mario’s counter strategy was their  No Limits pizza campaign created by McCann Erickson, which very likely derailed the introduction by Pizza Hut.

The pizza market here is not as big a part of the overall restaurant industry as it is in the U.S. Mario’s sees themselves in competition with other Quick Service Restaurants more so than other pizza competitors. When KFC has a big promotion Mario’s knows it.

Mario’s general marketing is seasonal and tactical. There are regular events which are revisited annually and there are special events as well. Six promotions are scheduled each year. The general marketing formula is Radio and Print with lots of posters. And then there is local store marketing. Mario’s Pizza does a good job of managing their local store marketing. They have a secret weapon and her name is Stacy Letren. She is part coordinator, organizer, and sales coach. Letren helps implement sales building programs at each store and then provides sales reports after the program has been completed to let each store know how well they succeeded. Each store will assemble a marketing crew under the direction of a shift leader and execute programs. Placing and changing of in-store posters is one regular marketing task. Another might be a special emphasis on suggestive selling during a particular month.. One plan that created a 49% increase in lunch sales was from a telemarketing effort that focused business is a large mall to come to the Mario’s mall location. Another program offers free pizza slices and certificates of achievements to neighborhood school kids. Each store develops their own local store marketing plan with Letren providing guidance.