It all started back in 1974 when Gina Costa opened a little pizzeria in the beachside town of Corona del Mar, which sits just a few feet off the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Here's a pizzeria that doesn't advertise, or do enough marketing to mention, that is not only thriving, but expanding. How did they develop that oh-so-valuable word of mouth advertising? Why is there so little turnover with the employees? Most have been there at least five to fifteen years and you couldn't run them off if you tried. How does one pizzeria do close to a million and a half in sales from a location with no sign, little seating and total floor space not much larger than a drive-thru bank? How do you become a legend in your town? Let's take a look at what makes Gina's Pizza & Pastaria, owned and operated by brothers Andrew and Alex Costa, such a success.
As legend has it, Mamma Costa, held court each day in the kitchen with a wooden spoon in one hand dispensing respect to anyone not doing things the way she liked it – it was Mamma's kitchen. She moved to the U.S. from Sicily, eventually finding her way to California. Some of the older, long-time customers recall the days when Gina ruled the roost. They say she was queen bee when she was there. Mamma Costa passed away some years back, but not before leaving behind two sons who kept the family-like atmosphere alive and developed this one little pizzeria into seven locations with a cult following.
Years after it all started, I sit in the corner of the small dining area at the original location as the lunch crowd begins to drift in. The dining area fills fast and a line forms at the sidewalk window. The servers come out of the kitchen, hands and arms loaded with orders. They call out the names of the customers waiting for food as if they are calling a brother, sister or old friend to the table for lunch. "Wow!" I think to myself. "These people come in here so often that everybody knows everybody." Rather than a pizzeria, it felt more like a bunch of friends gathering in someone's kitchen or patio for lunch.
I randomly approached a table of four customers. "Why Gina's?" The reasons were textbook examples of how to make lifetime customers and just one of the branches of the Gina's matrix.
"Great pizza," immediately came from two people. After short pause, the guy beside me said, "Andrew sponsored our business's softball team. I have always loved the pizza, but that was really nice. I have been coming here for 19 years and remember when Gina used to run things. You always knew Mamma was in the kitchen."
The lady sitting across from him said, "Yes, he also caters all of our company picnics. It's so good and convenient to have them come out with the food." Over the next few minutes they go on to tell me how they enjoy the atmosphere and service and how that makes Gina's the choice of all the locals.
How the Brand Began
When I asked Andrew how Gina's had become so popular he shared that the most important passage from the early years to now involved the transition of Gina's Pizza when the founder passed on. When Gina began to slow down and eventually succumbed to Alzheimer's it was like the wind in their sails went out. However, throughout those difficult years what became apparent is that this small passionate lady had established a real legacy through her love for food and hospitality and that her pizza and pasta carried the day and their customer count kept growing.
At some point the concept of Gina's Pizza as a brand, not just a pizza place, began to emerge. The approach to their business completely elevated to a new level. Before, the Costa brothers worked in their restaurants, now they began to focus on building the brand of Gina's Pizza & Pastaria and developing new locations. When building the brand became clear, long time employees became partners in promoting Gina's.
The forward momentum of opening new locations, like the 7th store in Irvine in March of 2002, has also brought in new operating partners who are as committed as the Costa's in building and promoting the brand image. Although the Costa's had tried franchising, the more successful formula has been to grow company locations by awarding the opportunity to long time employees and even a Gina's customer. There has been a lot to learn on this choice of growth strategy.
Gina's has continued setting up stronger systems and procedures to ensure a multiplication of restaurants based on the original models of Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach. What has also worked is the uniqueness of each location. They have allowed each location to reflect the neighborhood rather than creating a cookie cutter design for the decor and dining areas. Each location is definitely recognizable as a Gina's Pizzeria through similar menu's and signage, food quality and appearance. Each location, however, has a unique flavor. For instance, some stores reflect the beach life-style that dominates the area whereas the new location near UCI has become a favorite campus hangout.
Attracting and Retaining Great Employees
One of your first impressions on customers is your employees. If they are happy with their job, like the people they work with and their paycheck allows them to do something other than just pay the bills, the happiness spills out over the counter and to the customers. In each of the five Gina's locations I visited I asked the staff how long they have been there and why they stay. "I love my job and the people I work with," was the response nearly all gave. So I go to Andy and ask how he creates this sense of belonging.
"It's really simple," he says. "First, you compensate them well and acknowledge and reward good work. Everyone here makes well above minimum wage. When hiring, we look for team players. There is an energy level at each store that requires very action oriented participation. A new person on staff is either excited by it or intimidated. Gina's is constantly evolving in this area. We have become more discerning in the interview process, more systematic at early training and follow-up. Our way of rewarding great work began and continues with praise and affirmation. We began using the feed back sandwich a long time ago. Start with a specific positive feedback, state a clean comment on what needs to improve, and end with an overall encouragement. The response is overwhelmingly positive versus management by fear and shaming. Then add the on-going small perks each week.
"The key is the continuity of tangible rewards for the whole staff such as movie passes, some tip sharing, restaurant gift certificates, tickets to a game or concert or even coupons for a free Starbucks. Of course the base pay and salary must be consistent with solid performance. We do offer health insurance and bonuses based on earning up from the previous year. The flash report, a quick look of the previous seven days sales, food and labor cost, is vital in sharing with the core group of employees. We have found it is extremely important to be inclusive, not secretive. As a result each employee will begin to feel like a stakeholder in the performance of their restaurant. Allow them to develop a sense of belonging and the result will be continual great service."
The benefit of all of this is a family of employees who have been working together for years. They work together and play together. I witnessed how this is beneficial to Gina's. The gang jokes around and laughs with each other and it spills into the dining areas and when they are taking orders. When the employees are happy, they approach the customers in a different way. Like I mentioned earlier, their tone of voice and facial expressions made it obvious.
Catering-Can One Employee Make a Difference?
About 10 years ago Andrew hired a single mom named Joanne Caldwell. "I immediately recognized Joanne as a people person," Andy said. "She delivered pizzas and started generating a lot of catering orders through her promotional enthusiasm with the offices she delivered to. When you find a person like this, they become mobile advertising for your company."
Andrew allowed Joanne to spend more time doing catering and gave her a percentage of all the catering orders sales she brought in during the day, up until five o'clock, excluding weekends. Gina's had always treated large office orders as a big challenge, and slowly started to average one or two a day. As Joanne began focusing on catering it grew to average six or seven a day and often on Fridays they needed extra back-up drivers to handle all the catering orders. It is a win-win for Gina's and a well-deserved income stream for a born promoter who was passionate about continually bringing in new business. While visiting the Gina's locations, I went out on a catering job with Joanne to watch her in action. She wasted no time putting me to work.
"Grab those ten pizzas and put them in the delivery bags, then bring them out to the car," she said. When we got to the car she started explaining how she has grown her catering business within Gina's Pizza & Pastaria. In the trunk of her car were boxes of forks, knives, menus and coupons. "Always make sure you provide them with everything they need; napkins, forks, cups and most importantly menus and things to remind them you are there and how to reach you. Let's go, I pride myself with being on time."
On the road she continued to share. "I love what I do, where I work and the people I work with. I make friends with the business people that come into the restaurant and maintain a relationship with the ones I deliver to. When I see a new business move in, I introduce myself right away to let them know what we have to offer."
Here are a few tips from Joanne on how to develop catering customers.
- Always follow up the order with a courtesy call.
- If for any reason a delivery is behind schedule, call the customer to let them know right away.
- Whenever possible leave a business card, promotional magnet or coupons with the secretary or contact person.
Joanne has found that the secretaries are usually the ones who decide where the office will go for lunch. Joanne leaves the "decision maker" a coupon good for a free lunch with the next order. We walk in with the pizzas and pastas, Joanne immediately asked for the person who placed the order. Joanne handed her a stack of menus and the free lunch coupon. At that moment I knew there would be another order coming in the near future.
Staying true to the core Gina's recipes while also evolving to respond to the ever-changing tastes of the market place is part of the growth strategy. On a yearly basis, going back at least 12 years, the Costa brothers have used the slower months (January through April) to perform tune-ups on the systems, procedures and menu.
This past year, Andrew brought in Tony Lia, an experienced Italian Chef and innovator, to do a full check-up of Gina's back of the house operations. With Mr. Lia's help, the Costa's were able streamline operations in the kitchen and also add new menu items. Andrew believes it is well worth the investment to bring in fresh eyes and experience to work on the weakest links in the operation. He also believes in bringing in a business coach to sit in on staff meetings and give valuable feed back on organizational issues. Andrew also meets with his business coach weekly for personal and professional growth as well.
"We have had many different kinds of consulting and coaching over the years," Andrew says. "With out a doubt it has contributed to a sharpening of our skills and clarifying our purpose. I have used a personal coach for a couple years and have discovered the value of objective feedback in both my personal and professional life. I believe Gina's has benefited from this ongoing professional coaching on every level. I have made available my coach to various members of our staff and in many ways it has helped us through difficult moments. One website that I can recommend to pizza operators who may be interested in business and management coaching is www.coachmoty.com."
Gina's newest location is in Irvine near the University of California, Irvine. Gina's went to the Central Accounting Office and had their location set up as a proprietary vendor. They went and made presentations to the Food Service Departments and set up accounts with different departments so they can order and be billed once a month.
"Just deciding that you want to capture the college segment isn't enough," says Steve Speer, Gina's Pizza & Pasteria Operating Partner. "To begin with, you have to set goals for what you want to accomplish and delegate responsibilities. One of the first steps in becoming a proprietary vendor was to develop a relationship with the university and build credibility with them. In courting the university we designated a catering manager and gave away a lot of free lunches to the administrative brass. University campuses are like an octopus in that there are so many branches working independently of each other. Our catering manager, Kay Crisman, invested a lot of time developing a rapport and inviting Department Heads to Gina's for complimentary lunches.
"Once we were approved by the university we developed special menus and pricing to attract the administration and students. For the administration, we created special catering menus with bulk pricing. For the students, we developed bundled items so they could get complete meals at an affordable price because many students are on budgets. They can come in and get a slice and a drink or a slice, salad and drink, pasta and a drink or bundled deals like that. They can get a lunch for $3 or spend $10 if they want. We also discovered that to keep students coming in you need variety. We have tons of subs, salads, pastas and slices. They can come in every day and not get tired of the same thing. These are some of the things we have learned from the specialists and coaches Andrew has brought in. They have taught us how to train and coach our employees. We set the goals and explain to employees what our goals are and lead them in the right direction and they take the initiative to get achieve the goal. Where does this fit into the matrix of Gina's? When you take the time to teach and coach employees how to reach goals, they will help you grow. If you are not growing and learning, you lose." Gina's is also working with the university to allow students to use their meal cards at Gina's and bill the school.
Community service is also another way Gina's attracts business. They sponsor local business's softball teams, in which you can see is greatly appreciated by the comments at the beginning of this article. They also become involved with local charity events such as 5K runs and food festivals. This gets their name on promotional material and they provide food, which allows potential customers to sample their pizzas.
If I had to identify the things that are at the core of their success, it would be great coaching, great service, community involvement and a desire to constantly improve.
The Matrix of Managing Multiple Locations
About a year ago, while traveling as translator for the U.S. Pizza Team in Italy, I was sharing with Steve Green some insights on how it is to grow from one restaurant to seven locations. I was just beginning to understand how if one restaurant is like the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs, then two or three do not equate to a bigger goose or three geese. In reality, at three locations, our little Gina's Pizza in Newport Beach, CA had become another animal. To continue the metaphor, by seven locations, we had evolved into something like a Show Dog. Now it appears we are evolving again. Everything from management to our employees to how we prepared and served our food/product is beginning to take on the spirit of a Plow Horse. I am also beginning to visualize how it will look beyond 25 locations, which I am labeling as the Orca Whale Stage.
At PMQ's request, I am sharing with you this work in progress being called "The Matrix of Managing Multiple Locations". This Matrix is connected to every successful stage, and most importantly, you are the key to unlocking its code. Your whole brand, concept, restaurant identity and family depend on your skill and willingness to embrace change, to evolve, and accept your new role at each stage.
The Beginning o the Mamma Store o the Heart and Soul of your concept is all here like a healthy infant ready to grow.
At this stage it's all about proving that the concept can expand and be successful in new neighborhoods and markets.
This is the long stretch. At this level the stakes are higher and you will know what is core and what is not.
The brand is entering into the fullness and prime of life.