The Donte’s Way

In South Park, Pennsylvania, a small town less than 15 miles outside of Pittsburgh, husband-and-wife team Dwaine and Denise Marasco, the owners of Donte’s Pizzeria (dontespizzeria.com), know how to keep their customers happy. Inside, a wall covered with awards and framed magazine articles reminds customers of this fact. In the past few years, the Marascos’ shop has been voted among the best Pittsburgh-area pizzerias by multiple local media outlets, and as Most Promising New Business two years in a row by the Brentwood Baldwin Whitehall Chamber of Commerce. 

A family-friendly atmosphere, private parties and a monthly newsletter are just a few tools in the couple’s bag of marketing tricks. But ask this duo what their secret is, and they name a few key strategies: Be open and honest with customers, keep your specials affordable and regular, and, above all, grow your brand by constantly reaching out to new markets. Or, in other words, “Market like the recession doesn’t exist!” PMQ tracked down Dwaine and Denise to learn how these elements translate into profits for this successful, single-unit independent.

Why did you choose the name Donte’s Pizzeria?

Dwaine: I’ve been in the pizza business for 25 years. Five years ago, I decided it was time to go out on my own. Denise and I opened this shop together, and if we had a child, we would name it Donte. This pizzeria is like our baby. 

Tell us about your marketing philosophy.

Denise: About 2% of our budget goes to advertising right now. Our strategy is to hit new publications in new markets every year.

Dwaine: I think our best marketing tools are our lunch specials; they bring in repeat business. We have five different lunch specials for $5.99 right now. The most popular one is two slices of pizza, a side salad and a drink. I always tell my staff that I want to build repeat customers. So, if someone comes in and just wants two slices and a drink, we remind him that if he wants a salad, it’s only 20 cents more. People hear about the specials and want to come back and tell their friends. Our longest-running special is our “Pizza Plus.” That’s our Sunday family deal, which includes a pizza, breadsticks, a dozen wings and a two-liter for $19.99. It does very, very well for us.

Do you use any other print materials?

Dwaine: Our box toppers show our daily lunch specials, and we make sure we put those on every box that goes out. They work well, but the best tool is talking to the customers and being honest with them. I try to run the business so they want to come back again and again.

Do you ever use coupons?

Denise: We hardly ever use coupons. If we do, it will be for a brand-new publication to see what the return rate is for that market area.

Tell us about your outreach efforts.

Denise: We offer fundraising on our website, but a lot of fundraisers want us to sell our pies for $3 and compete with the chains. We just can’t do it. We have higher costs and use better ingredients. We have done a lot with the local high school band. We’ll sell our pies for 20% to 30% off, and they’ll sell them at concession stands during football games to raise money. We really want to help out local organizations. We want to help out South Park.

When did you start your monthly newsletter?

Denise: I started the newsletter right after we opened in 2006. It’s always gotten a phenomenal response; if I don’t send it out, people ask where it is. I’ve built up about 1,600 people on our email list. I put a lot of work into it and do it all in-house. We include our specials and remind people that we’re a drop-off location for the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. If the shop is going to be closed, I’ll mention it: “Be sure to get your Donte’s pizza now, because we’re going on vacation from this day to this day.” I also remind people we do private parties and that we’re BYOB.

How did you build up your email list?

Denise: I go to a lot of networking groups, and we also have a box on our counter with slips made for the email club. A lot of people sign up on our website. It just built up over time.

What feedback do you get from customers about your monthly newsletter?

Denise: Customers will come in and say, “Oh, you’re the one who sends the newsletter, thanks!” But it’s when people don’t get it that they say the most. People will ask where it is and say how much they like receiving that bit of information every month. We talked about doing it more often, but we didn’t want to inundate people.

Why did you decide to go BYOB?

Denise: We decided to become BYOB after looking into a liquor license; it was costly, and we have a young staff. We didn’t want them handling alcohol for liability reasons. But people really like it because there aren’t a lot of other BYOB places around here. There’s a store across the street, so if people come in and don’t know about our policy, we just say: “You can go across the street and pick up a six-pack.” Everyone seems to appreciate it.

Does Donte’s have a target demographic?

Denise: We probably market to families the most. We have a party room with arcade games, a bubble gum machine and a claw machine. Kids love coming here! Parents always tell us that Donte’s pizza is the only pizza they will eat. We also get a lot of college kids when they’re home for the summer or winter break.

How has the recession affected your marketing?

Denise: We just pretended that the recession didn’t exist. Our philosophy is that you always have to keep marketing; you can’t sit back and accept defeat. You can’t say, “Oh, the economy is bad, so that’s why business is slow.” You have to go out there and find repeat business. I think that also ties into why we don’t coupon. If people start to rely on coupons with your food, it’s a knee-jerk reaction when you stop—they stop coming. Our business is doing well even in the recesssion.

Do you have a five-year plan?

Dwaine: We don’t. But I have a 15-year plan of retiring! Honestly, in five years, we know we are going to be here. But I don’t want to think of our business like that. We just do the best we can and hope to make the best business we can.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.