As owner and CEO of Master Pizza Franchise Group in Cleveland, Ohio, Michael LaMarca may be the king of the castle, but he’ll be the first to tell you that the women in his life make him a better man.
LaMarca, who grew up in a pizza making family, learned a lesson long ago that too many husbands and fathers in this industry never grasp: It’s our loved ones that matter most, and no business, no matter how fast-growing and demanding, should keep a man away from his wife and kids for too long. “We all struggle with balancing our home life with our professional life,” LaMarca says. “It’s easy to lose sight of your values. Many situations come up where it can be easy to bend on your values and push your [personal] plans off for another day, but at what cost? Sometimes, you have to take care of your business to take care of your family, but a line has to be drawn.”
Staying on the right side of that line has helped LaMarca enjoy the best of both worlds. “Looking back,” he says, “the most positive insight I’ve had in regard to my company’s growth has been to learn how to manage the business and not let the business manage me.”
Michael LaMarca makes pies with John Arena of Metro Pizza.
—MichaelLaMarca, Master Pizza
Bitten by the Pizza Bug
As a child in Strongstown, Ohio, LaMarca tagged along with his mom to her job in a local pizzeria. “I would sit in the office and watch TV, color, or play on my Nintendo Game Boy,” he recalls. “When it was busy, I’d help out and make pizza boxes, roll dough, clean the dining room and grate cheese. Each day, I’d get the chance to make my own pizza for lunch or dinner—that’s when I got the bug and knew pizza was going to be a big part of my life.”
In 2000, his family took over the venerable Master Pizza chain, which started in 1955 and grew into one of Cleveland’s first pizzeria franchisors before losing steam. The company had shrunk to just one store—the original one in Mayfield Heights—when LaMarca’s father and uncle purchased it. LaMarca was working there when a fetching young brunette named Christina, employed at a salon next door, caught his eye. LaMarca still remembers the exact date—April 6, 2008—when he “found some courage and finally asked her out. I went to a family dinner at her parents’ house and immediately knew marriage was in our future.”
The very near future, as it turned out. In November of that same year, the two lovebirds tied the knot; a baby daughter, Frankie, made three in June 2011, and the addition of little Sophie made the LaMarcas a family of four in October 2013.
Dropping the “Nuke”
As president of Master Pizza, Jeremy Galvin personally responds to customer emails and has been known to provide his personal phone number to prove his commitment to creating a better experience.
By then, LaMarca had taken over the company and set a new course for expansion, opening a second location in Chagrin Falls in 2012. Master Pizza now has seven stores, with two more opening soon, but slow and steady wins the race, he believes. “We’ve always had the idea of slow, sustainable growth, instead of opening stores just to have more stores,” he says. “Ideally, we like to open a new location with our franchise partner and get it to the point where it’s totally sustainable before we start looking for our next location. With that in mind, we have opened about two to three locations a year. As we grow and have more resources in terms of capital and people, we probably will open locations at a quicker rate.”
When a new Master Pizza location opens, LaMarca’s team and franchise partner “nuke” the whole town. That’s the term they use for a marketing blitz that includes everything from direct mail to radio ads to social media. “We drop a menu in every mailbox in the whole city—every household, apartment and business gets one,” LaMarca says. “We include some aggressive offers in that menu drop. It serves as a big announcement that we’re ready to go.”
Designed posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also announce the new opening. “We follow up with random ‘in process’ posts and live video posts leading up to the opening,” LaMarca adds. “Along with the social media buzz, we run spots with our radio partners. We’ve also placed grand-opening ads through print marketing companies such as Valassis, Valpak, TMS and Gold Clipper. Some people think print is dead, but we’ve found it’s not true in the pizza business. We still see a huge amount of print coupons coming in at our old and new locations.”
Radio is very much alive, too, as any sports fan will tell you. And with pro teams like the Cavaliers and the Indians, Cleveland-area fans have plenty to cheer about. “We do a lot of marketing on sports radio,” LaMarca says. “I’ll drop off food at the local station, and they immediately put me on the air. We do scheduled food drops and call-ins where I’ll phone in about a sporting event. We also sponsor One-Word Wednesday, where they ask a fill-in-the-blank question and listeners call in with their answers. So, throughout that show, they’re saying our name over and over again, and they also blast it out on their social media.”
—MichaelLaMarca, Master Pizza
Taste Above All
Making the Team
MichaelLaMarca, owner of Master Pizza Franchise Group, offers three tips for building a team you can trust to manage the day-to-day operations of your business:
Provide opportunities to grow.“You need to put people in positions to grow and succeed,”LaMarcasays. “Your team members must feel there is an opportunity for them: increased wages, more responsibilities, being groomed to become a manager or GM, or the chance to participate in a profit-sharing/bonus program or assume part ownership in an existing location.”
Learn to trust your team members.“If you give them more responsibilities, step aside and let them do their jobs,”LaMarcaadvises. “The only way to get yourself away from the shop is to delegate responsibilities.”
Create an atmosphere of ownership.“Make your team members feel like they have a vested interest in your company,”LaMarcasays. “When I travel from store to store, one of my favorite things to hear is when a team member says words like ‘my shop’ when describing the store they work at. That tells me they really care about where they work.”
In an era marked by flashy, celebrity-backed pizza concepts, Master Pizza at first glance looks like a throwback, from its whimsical pizza-man logo and “Taste Above All” motto to its homey website with printable coupons and simple red-and-white color palette. But don’t let that folksy vibe fool you: LaMarca, a captain of the U.S. Pizza Team (USPT), has a history of dominating culinary competitions and travels the world to hone his craft.
“We love to experiment with new flavors and toppings,” he says. He discovered peppadew peppers at a trade show in 2012. “I picked one up, thinking it was a cherry tomato, popped it in my mouth, walked a few steps and bang! It was sweet, it was spicy, it was freakin’ awesome! I knew I needed to make a pizza with it one day. We came up with the Peppadew Punch, with peppadew peppers, bacon and grilled chicken on top of a cheesy garlic sauce.”
Another new ingredient on the Master Pizza menu: roasted red potatoes. “This does not scream ‘exciting,’ but I love its versatility,” LaMarca says. “We have the Loaded Potato Bake as an appetizer and our Loaded Baked Potato Pizza, with roasted red potatoes, bacon, provolone and cheddar Jack cheese topped with a sour cream sauce.”
For his dough, LaMarca prefers unbromated flour and a nonhydrogenated, vegetable-based shortening. “We’re so proud of our products and are making an effort to use clean ingredients,” he notes. “We believe the products we serve should be good enough to feed our own children.”
Becoming a Leader
LaMarca talks about his own children a lot. He doesn’t refer to his daughters simply by their names; it’s always “my Sophie” and “my Frankie.” He fondly remembers bringing little Frankie to the new location in Chagrin Falls every day while his wife taught early morning yoga classes. “I’d load her up with some snacks, her blanket, her Muno doll and my iPad so she could watch Curious George on Netflix. I’d set her up in a high chair next to the pizza make line with the iPad at a perfect angle. I would often look over and make sure she was OK. Looking back, I realize those were pretty special days.”
Over time, LaMarca, like so many entrepreneurs, found himself putting work before family as his business grew. His fame as a pizza rock star was also growing, thanks to his success as a USPT member and jet-setting culinary competitor. “There’s a constant struggle between being a family man and a business owner,” he says. “The struggle is not motivation—it’s being overly motivated. Business owners and entrepreneurs have a problem with never being able to stop working and thinking about their businesses. That nonstop motivation is what drives us to stay up late, create new pizzas for our menus, take the empty storefront next door and make a larger dining room, or open more locations. The challenge is to channel all that motivation and passion into a set number of hours per day and make sure you take at least one day completely off each week—my day is Sunday—and spend it with your family.”
After working at home for years, LaMarca set up a new office in a nearby building and tries to limit his work to eight hours a day. With the home office, he says, “I would find more reasons to work longer hours each day, just because the opportunity was near me. I would stay up late working on a project because I wasn’t able to sleep, knowing there was unfinished work one room over!”
But LaMarca also knew his girls would grow up fast, and he didn’t want to be stuck at his desk while the years flew by. “Business owners are chasing their tails if they sacrifice family time to focus on their companies, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll spend more time with the family once I’ve accomplished this or that.’ I know this for a fact, because I was that person. To get out of that vicious cycle, I had to understand that I alone could not achieve the goals I set for the company. I needed a team, not a bunch of employees. And to have a team, I had to create common goals for all of us.”
Providing opportunities for his team members to grow and advance was key to building a company that could run whether he was there or not. (See sidebar on page 36.) LaMarca, meanwhile, learned to lead by example and to grow more comfortable in that role. “I have observed over time that people want to be led,” he says. “And, whether or not you think you are the leader in your company, I have news for you: You are the leader.”
Once he accepted his role as Master Pizza’s leader, he thought more carefully about how he led. “I quickly learned that every action I took, every move I made, every decision I came to, would set the standard for everyone else in the company to follow,” he recalls. “I had to consider carefully the outcomes of every decision prior to making it, and that was one of the most positive ways I learned to manage the company’s growth.”
LaMarca, shown here competing in the Chinese Pizza Championship in Shanghai, says membership in the U.S. Pizza Team has made him a better pizza maker than he ever thought he’d be, while also earning significant media coverage for Master Pizza.
Life’s Little Moments
Not only did Christina LaMarca give her husband two adorable daughters, she also gave him the confidence to pursue his dream of expanding Master Pizza.
By building a team he could trust, LaMarca was able to step back a bit and enjoy life’s little moments: admiring Sophie’s latest crayon drawings, teaching Frankie to sauce a pie. “One of my favorite things to do with my girls is cook them dinner,” he says. “I’ve noticed my Frankie likes to watch what I do and often asks me if she can try it herself. I love showing her how to pound out and bread chicken breasts or put sauce and cheese on a pizza. I love making some sort of pasta and chicken dish, plating it nicely, serving it to my girls, and within three minutes, half of the dinner is on the table or on the floor. I hope, at some point in the near future, their eating habits become more civilized!”
His wife, Christina, meanwhile, plays no role in the daily operations of Master Pizza. “But this company would not be where it is today without her,” LaMarca admits. “When I wanted to open my first shop in Chagrin Falls, I had no business doing it. We’d just bought a house a year or so earlier. We had our first baby girl, Frankie. We definitely had enough to keep us occupied, and money was tight.”
But LaMarca is, after all, an incorrigible entrepreneur. Having too much to do was not enough. “I’ll never forget: We were sitting at a Starbucks when I told Christina what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “Her reaction was so calm, and she said, ‘If you think it’s a good location and a good idea, do it.’ I knew then it would be a success. I felt that confidence she had in me, knowing I could accomplish whatever I wanted to do.”
And LaMarca won’t mind a bit if his daughters follow in his culinary footsteps. “I hope my girls see the passion I have for cooking—pizza specifically—and take a liking to making food for their families one day,” he says. “Food is more than nutrition. Food is passion, art and tradition, all served on a plate. Food brings families together and creates lasting memories.”