The Olivers' twist

If you heard about a pizzeria thatscored 80% of its sales in specialtypizzas with unusual ingredients—think ghost chili pepper infusions andcold fruit and vegetables as “finishing”toppings—you might assume it couldonly exist in a sprawling metropolis alreadyoverrun with standard pizza joints.But in tiny North Muskegon, Michigan,Bernie O’s Pizza (bernieos.com), withits wildly creative and eclectic menu,doesn’t just exist—it thrives.

Best known for its award-winningThe Twist pizza, described on the menuas “crispy and chewy, sweet and hot,tangy and savory, creamy and tart, cooland warm,” and for the searing-hot,Food Network-featured Firebird, BernieO’s puts its unique spin on nearly everymenu item. Customers can also order astandard pepperoni pie, of course, butonly if they aren’t tempted by one of themany intriguing specialty options.

Founded by Addam and Heather Oliverin 2006, Bernie O’s has taken NorthMuskegon by storm, winning accoladesfor Best Pizza and Best Dish at the Tasteof Muskegon festival two years in a row.Although a quick glance at the menuconfirms that Bernie O’s is an innovative,fun operation, its story, like that of manysmall businesses, is one of struggles andsetbacks ultimately overcome by ingenuityand hard work.

Rising From the Ashes

After taking the plunge and quitting theirday jobs, the Olivers worked as caterersfor a while before taking over a small,underequipped bingo hall kitchen thatcaught fire and burned down while theywere transitioning to a pizza operation.Years before their pizzas would garnerthem national attention, however, theOlivers made a Phoenix-like rise from theashes. They scraped together a little money,salvaged the equipment that survivedthe blaze and forged ahead with theirgoal to develop their own unique pizzasand become the state’s best pizzeria.Another tragedy—the unexpected deathof Heather’s father, Bernie Ockaski—inspired the Olivers’ restaurant’s name.“Bernie’s tremendous work ethic andstrong sense of integrity inspired us notonly to not give up, but to aspire to becomethe greatest pizzeria in Michigan,”Addam says. “To remind us every day ofwhat we were doing and why, we namedthe pizzeria after him.

Half a decade later, Bernie O’s Pizzais a local treasure with growing nationalappeal. Despite being located in a smalltown with a population of about 4,000,the pizzeria has nearly 4,500 Facebookfans, has earned top billing on Urbanspoonand placed in the top three in aNew Jersey pizza competition.

Cold Fusion

Bernie O’s offers a dizzying selection ofsubs, strombolis, salads and pies, butits most audacious offering, The Twist—featuring a specialty sauce on a thin crustand topped with bacon, chicken and cheese,then baked and finished with pineapple, tomatoes,hot peppers and homemade ranchdressing—outsells all other pizzas on themenu by a three-to-one margin. The additionof cold toppings after baking “givesthe pizzas wonderful contrasting flavorsand textures, and it’s the contrast that justblows people away and keeps them comingback for more,” Addam notes.

The Olivers stay focused on theircustomers and their community. Theypride themselves on offering a diverseand evolving menu and encourage repeatbusiness by keeping their customershappy. Addam’s philosophy issimple: “Treat every customer like he’syour only customer,” he says, “and act asif there’s a competitor right next door—because there is.” From a “no questionsasked” return policy—which has helpedpatrons muster up the gumption to trynew specialty pizzas—to a generous rewardsprogram, Bernie O’s places a highpremium on sending diners home withfull bellies and happy hearts. The Oliversalso make it a point to serve as a positivepresence in the community, helpingout with school events, fundraisers andother occasions.

Keepers of the Flame

Bernie O’s reputation has spread beyondthe Michigan state line, thanks in part toits signature Firebird pizza, a 28” spicyconcoction topped with breaded chicken,cheese, ranch, hot sauce, minced jalapeñopeppers and ghost chili pepper(reportedly 300 times hotter than a jalapeño)powder. The pizzeria’s FirebirdChallenge promotion—contestants mustgobble down the eye-watering pie in onehour to win T-shirts, a spot on the restaurant’sWall of Flame and gift certifi cates—was featured on the Food Network showOutrageous Food in early 2011.

Addam stresses the important role theInternet and social media outlets haveplayed in promoting Bernie O’s. To establisha strong online presence, the Olivershired a professional website designer andworked to make sure the site accuratelyreflected the Bernie O’s image. They alsosee great marketing value in their Facebookpage, which allows them to directlycommunicate with their fans (users whoclick the Like button on their page) aboutnews, specials and events. Meanwhile,the Olivers utilize directory sites, includingUrbanspoon and Yelp, as marketingtools, eliciting positive feedback from existingpatrons to generate interest frompotential new customers.

Additionally, to stay focused on the pizzeria’sday-to-day operations, the Oliversuse a third-party management system tomaintain their database, email list andrewards program—a more efficient andcost-effective way to do a job that otherwisewould take a full-time staff memberon the Bernie O’s payroll.

From the Bruschetta and French Dip tothe Memphis BBQ and the ever-popularTwist, lack of pie variety will never be aproblem at Bernie O’s. But in the unlikelyevent that a customer tries and doesn’tcare for an item on the menu, the Oliversare always happy to bring out anotherone. Fortunately, that’s rarely necessary,Addam says, but it’s the kind of guaranteethat keeps customers satisfi ed—andhungry for more.

Patrick Riordan is a freelance writer basedin Chicago.