By Brian Hernandez
I’m Brian Hernandez, director of the U.S. Pizza Team (USPT), and I want to take you on a ride through the roster of one of the greatest pizza organizations in the country.
Rico Lunardi, owner of Slice On Broadway in Pittsburgh, joined the U.S. Pizza Team amid the pandemic and has been active ever since. Competing in the 2020 Virtual U.S. Pizza Cup (VUSPC), Lunardi placed third out of more than 20 competitors desperately looking for something to do during the lockdown. He returned the next year for the 2021 VUSPC, placing first this time and securing his spot on the team.
Once the world opened up for business again, he got out and immediately signed up for some of the big events, like the 2022 Galbani Professionale Pizza Cup in Orlando and Pizza & Pasta Northeast, as well as the 2022 and 2023 Pizza Expos, taking third place for the Northeast Region and fifth place overall. In this Q&A, an extended version of the story appearing in the August 2023 issue of PMQ, Lunardi talked to me about his growth strategy for Slice On Broadway, how to recruit and retain reliable employees, dealing with trolls, pizza robotics and feeding Pirates fans.
Brian Hernandez: Tell us about Slice.
Rico Lunardi: We opened 13 years ago, in July of 2010. My family had a restaurant at the time, and it was always a dream to own a pizzeria, so I went for it. We proved we had some pretty good pizza and grew from there. Now we have six locations around the Pittsburgh area.
Hernandez: Was the initial plan always for steady growth like that?
Lunardi: My game plan is ever-changing. Slow and steady may seem like the plan a lot of the times, but I have been known to put the cart before the horse and get ahead of myself. But if I see the opportunity and it makes sense, I will take it, even if we’re not exactly ready for it. For example, we had expanded into PNC Park and were doing excellent down there. We were feeding all the Pirates fans and having a good year. Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed. I decided to close it down and leave. You have to be ready to pivot. Everything in your business should be personal at some level, but you must be able to step outside yourself and ask, “Does this make sense for the business?” Having a plan helps inform that decision.
Hernandez: What’s the best way to “step outside yourself”?
Lunardi: Most times people try to take on everything at the beginning. Sometimes you have no choice, but, once you do, you should loosen the reins and manage people’s expertise. Maybe somebody is better at social media than you, or someone has a better understanding of accounting. Use them. You may have to pay, but it will free you up to step back and get a broad overview of the operation. It helps you grow too. And people in our industry are more than willing to help. There have been a handful of pizza shop owners that have come to me and asked questions, and I’m more than willing to answer them. I don’t want people to repeat the mistakes I made along the way. Even though they’re competing with me, I don’t want to see them…well, we’re all in this thing together, and we’re trying to make a living. How it works for me might not be the way it works for you, but I’m going to tell you how I did it anyways.
Hernandez: If you were required to pick one consultant before opening a shop, what kind do you recommend?
Lunardi: I would have someone look over my business plan just to make sure it’s a viable idea. Just because I think I make the best cherry pie in Pittsburgh doesn’t make it so. Sometimes we get clouded in our own imagination of what’s going to work or what won’t. A good business plan is the foundation of your business. If you have a strong building block with that, and you execute well, you’re more than likely going to have a successful business.
Hernandez: You mentioned PNC Park. Could you expand on that?
Lunardi: In 2016 I opened up in PNC Park. That was a whole new challenge for our operation. That stadium holds thousands of people. During the year, our back door opened to the park, and our front door became a ticketing gate. Everyone could come through there on their way in and grab some pizza. On any given game day during the season we could sell a few thousand slices. We had to figure out how to do that volume—and quickly. How we operated on day 1 was different than the next seasons. But it was challenging. It was feast or famine down there. For lunch we would have 200 customers come through, but late night wasn’t very busy on that side of town. We were obviously busy in June/July/August with the games, but when the pandemic hit, it obviously just uprooted a lot of people. We were fortunate enough to have other locations to support that one, but, coincidentally, my lease was up, and that made me step back and ask, “Is this something I want to continue to do?”
Hernandez: Any tips for someone just starting out?
Lunardi: There is opportunity in pizza post-pandemic with people selling existing pizzerias. I use that myself when looking for expansion. I like to get the existing locations, so it reduces build-out costs. There are still costs, of course, but they are lessened, and I can open quicker. But there are also still risks; for example, the market for employment is still hard. While you can plan for most things, there are always risks.
Hernandez: Labor issues are hurting a lot of operations, independents and chains alike. How do you tackle the problem?
Lunardi: First off, you have to create a great work environment. Make sure they enjoy coming to work to get the best out of them. We offer benefits and PTO; in fact, we encourage people to take that time off and create balance in their life. Being a member of the USPT, we go to competitions now and are able to gift trips to these events to some of our staff. Giving them these kinds of rewards helps them see the confidence you place in them, and that breeds loyalty. You have to have some flexibility though. Some people want to work days, others want to work nights. You have to do your best to find that mix that will fill up your whole schedule. And recruit through your employees. They are your best PR reps on the street. You can even give them incentives for any referral that lasts six months or longer, something like that. I’ve used third-party employment platforms, but they cost a lot of money. I‘ve had my second-best results from boosting posts on Facebook and other social media. There, you are targeting an audience that are your fans. And you never go wrong by handing out flyers in your shops.
Hernandez: Is using Facebook and other social media an effective way to find good employees?
Lunardi: It is, but it comes with its own risks. While I believe everyone should be paid a fair wage, there is a balance to that, and I think at one point, the people’s expectations for our industry were higher than what the industry was maybe paying. And that’s all fine for your expectations, but we did start getting some people trolling our social media. A couple times when I posted a job with the rate, I got responses asking, “That’s all you’re paying?” I would think, “Well, yeah. That’s what the industry is paying.” And sometimes I would fall into their traps and reply, but the funny thing is, most of them aren’t even from around here. But that’s how it is in the world. You can do something absolutely perfect, and someone will inevitably write a bad review for it.
Hernandez: How do you deal with these trolls?
Lunardi: Someone wrote one about us the other day. We sell slices. We’re in Pittsburgh, but we are a classic New York slice operation. You see slices on display, you pick one and we throw it back in the oven. Someone was appalled that we did that. I could only respond “That’s what we do. That’s how it’s done.” This goes back to my previous statement of, you can’t take everything personally. I take all the info in and decide whether it is something we need to improve or if it is just bogus. We’re not going to make everyone happy doing what we do, but if we’re doing it in a way that is consistent and right, then that’s all there is at the end of the day.
Hernandez: You seem like a calm dude. Do you have any special technique that helps you take a step back and analyze all the info in a post before you react to it?
Lunardi: I’m a Sour Patch Kid. First I’m sour, then I’m sweet. They say never respond right away but sometimes you feel personally offended. It’s your employees, your product they are badmouthing. If it is something completely incorrect they are saying, I politely but firmly correct them, so they know what they may have been mistaken about. And then I usually give them a free pizza: “Thanks for bringing that to our attention. Your next pizza is on us.” We’re not gonna get it right all the time, but we do our best. I work in a lot of my restaurants, and I once had a customer come up to me and ask for wings. I told him we don’t sell wings. He told me, “Well, you used to.” I told him, “No we didn’t.” “Yes, you did.” All I can say is, pick and choose your battles.
Hernandez: Pizza-making, technology and robots: What are your thoughts? Are you excited or has The Singularity emerged?
Lunardi: It’s inevitable that technology is going to be more and more integrated into every industry as time goes on. We can’t take out the human element of certain things, but I think we have to see what will make sense for our business. For example, the number of phone calls pizzerias get has dropped due to online ordering. Which is a good thing. It can lead to more people ordering as well as less mistakes on the pizzeria’s side. I’m sure some day someone will build a fully robotic pizza shop, but I think even then it will be a novelty item.
People will still want that human interaction. That’s what makes us so successful: the stories we have with and the relationships we grew with our customers. You can’t build that with a robot. Well, maybe you can, but that would be a pretty cold conversation. But at the time of this interview, I feel the best integration of robotics is to supplement your staff. I’m technology-driven and want to incorporate things that will make our process more accurate and efficient. And, yeah, a robot may replace a phone person eventually, but now that phone person is freed up to work on oven-tending or other areas of the operation. It may eliminate certain areas, but it will ultimately help us improve and shift our focus to something else within our business.
We are also on three of the major third-party delivery apps. Today’s consumers are accustomed to ordering online, differently than we used to. We need to make sure we are visible to as many of our potential customers as we can be. But on the transverse side of that, there was a time I was losing orders because we didn’t have in-house delivery. It’s not that we didn’t want to, I just couldn’t find delivery drivers. But the younger generation is just so groomed to go on there, it’s not even a second thought for them. They probably don’t even know what regular delivery or takeout is. But I do let customers know that if they want our food cheaper, hotter and quicker, order directly through us. In the end they are going to order through third parties, and I want a part of it.
Hernandez: Is being part of a competitive team beneficial to your operation?
Lunardi: I think there are tremendous benefits. It’s awesome for the camaraderie and to meet other people. Obviously, you’re going there to compete, and hopefully win, but you learn and experience much more than that. Sometimes the most beneficial things you experience aren’t even on the competition floor—just finding out how your team members and other competitors do things. You always get new tricks for the business and the menu. But when you come back, make sure to tell the press you competed and how you did. Actually, tell them before you compete as well. Build the hype. And don’t forget to add “award-winning” to that pizza on your menu.