The dough pros

Welcome to Castro Valley, California, population: 57,292. Castro Valley is located about 25 minutes from downtown San Francisco and has the reputation of being the home of the highest number of fast food restaurants per capita in the country. You are about to meet the Gemignani brothers.

Learn how Tony and Frank took 2,000 square feet of a rented strip center and turned it into one of the most successful pizza landmarks in Castro Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Most people know the more famous of the two brothers, Tony, as the five-time world pizza champion. Tony is the first one to give his older brother Frank credit for making the business work while Tony has assumed a larger PR role.

"It was Franks idea to start Pyzano's back in 1991," Tony says. " He had experience with a couple of indie pizzerias and I was willing to learn. He was 22 and I was 18. We didn't know much about pizza, but we were curious. We were open to new ideas and we liked experimenting in the kitchen."

Voted Best Pizza Year After Year

Pyzano's Pizza has been voted the best pizza for the past eight years straight by the Bay Area Newspaper Group. This group is comprised of six local newspapers that collect ballots from local consumers on who has the best food. The title of best is a people's choice award, which makes this award all the more sweet.

With firsthand experience, I can tell you the food is as good as it gets, at any price and as it turns out, they are not expensive. "Great food at good prices aimed at the families of Castro Valley – That's our market," says brother Frank. "Castro Valley is a blue collar city, even though it is located in the high tech bay area."

Why is their food so good? "The most important parts of making our pizzas are the dough, sauce and cheese," says Tony. "We make our dough fresh. We use Stanislaus because I believe it is the best, but we add a blend of seven spices to create a signature sauce. We use a 75 percent blend of Grande cheese.

"Any time we want to add something new or change an ingredient we test it with our customers first," Tony goes on to explain. "We pick about 15 of our regular customers to get feedback. Sometimes we don't tell them about changes until after they get through eating. By testing new ideas this way, we get better feedback if they taste something different. Their answers aren't affected by knowing beforehand that something different. If it is a new item, we give it to them to try and then ask what they think."

How Did They Build a Brand and a People's Choice Pizzeria?

There is a complex and twofold answer to that question. The short answer is getting involved with the community and entering pizza-related competitions. To capture local business, they worked with schools, created a place kids could identify with and worked on drawing in families. To expose the Pyzano's brand to a larger market, Tony began competing in acrobatic dough tossing events, which led to something much larger and lucrative than he could have ever imagined. The results were a small pizzeria going from $700 thousand a year in sales to one doing over $1.3 million a year plus publicity that can be valued in the millions.

"From the time we first opened the restaurant we have always had an open kitchen where people can see the staff preparing pizzas," Tony explains. "We were always back there slapping out the dough for the next day and noticed kids as well as parents loved to watch, so we started trying to show off a little. We would flip the dough around and toss it up and they loved it. We got pretty good at it. One day I was messing around and accidentally dropped a piece of dough. As it headed for the floor, I stuck out my hand and flipped it back up. It looked like a trick and that's where it all began.

"Back in 1995, they used to have this thing called the Pizza Olympics, which at that time was a competition that drew people from all over the world. There was an acrobatic dough tossing category, so I decided to enter. Oh man, the New York guys razzed us when we showed up at the competition. 'What does a guy from California know about pizza tossing?' I won."

"After winning three times in Las Vegas, PMQ contacted me and encouraged me to go to a larger competition in Italy. I decided to enter the World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy after being pursuaded by PMQ Publisher Steve Green.

"To get ready to compete on the world stage, I practiced in my bedroom. At that time, my room was small and the dresser was close to my bed. I situated myself between the wall, bed and dresser so I only had about a foot of space around me to practice. I got pretty good because I always knew where the dough was going to be and if it got away I smacked myself on the dresser or wall. Back then, some of the guys would toss with music in the background, but nothing was choreographed. I was one of the few who really created a routine built around the music. The first year, I used the song 'Shout' by the Isley Brothers. The second year I used 'Macho Man' and the last year I used the theme song from the James Bond movies.

"Over the next few years of competing, I added new moves and routines. I have some moves named after me in Italy, like the Gemignani, which is where I have a dough in each hand and throw each of them across my shoulders and each one goes to the opposite hand. Once you win a few times, the pressure is on to top what you did the year before. The last year I competed I did part of my routine throwing while I was blindfolded. People laughed when I pulled out the blindfold, but last year there was at least two other guys who copied the idea."

To make a long story short, Tony went on to win his first appearance at the World Pizza Competition – and every one after that. "Big deal," you say. "What does throwing dough around have to do with becoming a successful pizzeria?" More than you could imagine.

Being the world champion dough thrower drew the attention of some big names. Over the past few years, Tony has been invited to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Real TV, Good Morning America, the Food Network, The Howie Mandel Show and has been aired on CNN and ESPN, just to name a few. He has been asked to be a spokesperson or make appearances for Disney, Precious Cheese, Sorrento Cheese, Foremost Farms PZ44 and has been on several commercials. He was even invited to teach the stars how to throw at Francis Ford Coppola's winery in Napa, California, where they held a celebrity pizza toss.

Getting Involved in the Community

"When we first started in business, we really wanted to get in with the high school kids from Castro Valley High," Tony says. "That was our biggest unrealized opportunity at the time. We turned our pizzeria into a high school hangout, but only at night and after we closed for regular business hours. It worked very well for about a year before we expanded beyond that segment."

Here's what they did. A few nights a week they would have a battle of the bands at their location between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. They would get high school bands to play and offer a cash prize to the winner as determined by crowd enthusiasm. They hired popular high school kids to work there and even changed out the lights to create a more suitable atmosphere. They did several other things to become involved with the community, such as offering a $500 a year scholarship to a deserving high school student and adopted a local elementary school and works with them on fund-raising. For the fund-raising, a special night is promoted by Pyzano's and the school. When 10 percent above Pyzano's average sales is reached, 50 percent of sales goes to the charity. Pyzano's also gets involved with school field trips and career days and finds ways to trade pizza for free advertising.

Pyzano's Best Sales Building Idea

Wednesday night is Kid's Night. This is Pyzano's biggest night and here's how it works. They box top a simple message stating kids eat free with every paying adult. At 7p.m. all of the kids can learn to toss a pizza. It's a hands-on fun party. Tony promotes it as: Toss With World Champion Tony Gemignani. "The idea could work for anyone," Tony says. "I used to toss pizza with the kids before I became famous for it and they loved it then, too." PMQ shot video of this promotion while at Pyzano's and has it online at PMQ.com. To see a clip, go to the Pizza Theater at www.pmq.com.

Every pizza store can use pizza tossing as a customer icebreaker or a publicity tool, even if you don't toss dough to make your pizzas. Dough is cheap and the advertising is very visual. "I started doing tricks for kids when they came into the shop," Tony says. "I was terrible when I first started, but the kids still enjoyed it."

Other Perks of the Job

The celebrity status that came from entering the pizza competitions has led to many other perks and opportunities. "Because I have won these competitions, I have had new opportunities presented to me," Tony says. "First, I get to travel the world and as a result, my pizza skills are enhanced. I get to see and try the newest products and equipment when I make appearances for the companies that hire or sponsor me. Anytime I am working for a company or a sponsor or doing a media event I get to mention our restaurant, usually on TV or radio even thought I am working for someone else. All of these people hear about us from all over the country and when they come anywhere near here, they come by the restaurant. Companies hear about us and we're given some great products to try."

In addition, he has been invited to teach cooking classes on pizza at 11 culinary schools. He teaches four sessions a year for each of the 11 schools and earns $600 for each session. It has also helped him launch his own brand of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which is sold in high-end grocery stores in northern California.

"In the first six or seven years, our pizza sales hit a plateau of $700 thousand," Tony says. "After I appeared on The Tonight Show in 1997 our sales steadily grew until it reached the $1.3 million mark, which is where we are now. I have either spoken or performed almost everywhere in the world. I have been to Japan, Italy, London, Thailand and everywhere. In addition to boosting my sales and branding our restaurant, the competitions generate an additional $30 thousand in revenue through these things like the olive oil, cooking classes, sponsorships and appearances."

One of the more recent perks is the gift of an electric car from S & C Ford of San Francisco. Using Ford's all-electric car, Pyzano's has taken a new step into environmental awareness. The slogan "Eat Pizza. Not Pollution!" is stated on their new delivery vehicle. "Not only will we get a lot of attention from the looks of the car, we will cut down on our fuel costs and pollution," Tony says, "which is a big concern here in California."

After winning the World Pizza Competition five times, several officials hinted to Tony that maybe it was time for him to give some others a chance to win and offered him a judging position with the competition. PMQ jumped on this and offered Tony the opportunity to coach the U.S. Pizza Team. Now Tony travels with the team and helps select and coach the members of the U.S. Team at the U.S. Team Trials at the Mid-America Pizza show in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 23-24, 2003, and Reed Exhibition's New York Restaurant Show in New York City on Jan. 19-21.

If you would like to try and become the next pizza superstar, be sure to try out for the U.S. Pizza Team. Somebody reading this right now is going to win, get the chance to be coached by Tony, get a free trip to Italy and become a superstar, too. It could be you, but only if you try. For more information about the competition and trying out, visit the www.uspizzateam.com site.

Pyzano's Kids Eat Free Policy

With each paying adult at regular menu price one child is entitled to a kid's meal (one mini 1-topping and soda)

This means an adult must buy a menu item at regular price NOT INCLUDING ANY COUPONS AND/OR DISCOUNTS. Patrons must go by the table below. Free kid's meals are as follows:

  1. Free kid's meal when purchasing – Any small pizza, 1 Calzone, 1 Stromboli, 1 Turnover
  2. Free kid's meals when purchasing – Any medium pizza, 2 Calzones, 2 Strombolis, or 2 Turnovers
  3. Free kid's meals when purchasing – Any large pizza, 3 Calzones, 3 Strombolis, or 3 Turnovers
  4. Free kid's meals when purchasing – Any extra-large pizza, 4 Calzones, 4 Strombolis, or 4 Turnovers

MINIS, SALADS, AND APPETIZERS ARE NOT INCLUDED!

Dine-in Only

91-92 $400,000
93 $490,000
94 $550,000
95 $680,000 Tony's 1st title (Local news & talk shows)
96 $720,000 Tony's 2nd title (BBC London Generation Game, more local shows, Foremost Farms Spokesperson)
97 $740,000 Tony's 3rd title (Tonight Show, Home & Family Show, Day & Date, Nickelodeon, Tour Thailand 8 shows, Local News & talk shows) Disney World Florida, 1st Commercial Green Mill restaurants MN.
98 $880,000 Manager wins ( Both are on Real TV, Food Network, Local News & Talk Shows TV shows envision Teacher vs. Student)
99 $940,000 (Howie Mandell show, Hot Shots, ESPN, Teaching classes begins, Disneyland, CA, 2nd commercial MN, 3 rd Commercial Dolly's MI, Francis Ford Coppola Celebrity Pizza Toss)
00 $1,220,000 Tony's 4th title (Local News & talk shows, Olive Oil Co. Begins, PBS, Rai TV Italy, SF giants Pre Game Show)
01 $1,302,000 Tony's 5th title ( Early Show, Rai TV Italy, Local News & Talk Shows)
02 $???????????? Good Morning America, Spokesperson Sorrento Cheese

Tony and Frank would like to thank the following Companys:

Green Mill Restaurants, Dolly's Pizza, Gina's Pizza, Palermo's Pizza, Foremost Farms Grande Cheese, Stanislaus, Multifoods, Coca-Cola, Miller, SF Giants, Disney, Marriott, Draegers, Swiss American Sausage Co., Sorrento Cheese, Proctor & Gamble, GFS Skyana Entertainment, Sysco, Van Earden, Alfredo's New York Style Pizza, Eldorodo Casino, & of course, Pizza Marketing Quarterly.