The recession-proof Pi

Chris Sommers, the founder of Pi Pizzeria (restaurantpi.com) in St. Louis, knew he had the perfect name for his pizzeria. The value of Pi is 3.14 and used to calculate the area of a circle (i.e., pizza). The area code for St. Louis is 314. And Pi makes you think of pizza! So on March 14, 2008 (3/14), or “Pi Day,” this entrepreneur opened shop in the Gateway City. And in just over two years, the pizzeria has gone from a start-up with 40 employees to a small chain with 300 employees, four stores and a mobile unit. Pi, known for its cornmeal crust and green operations, also caught the attention of the president in May 2009 when Sommers was called out to throw the Obama family a deep-dish pizza party. Today, with plans to open a shop in D.C. in 2011, Sommers continues to prove that the value of Pi is recession-proof. With a reputation for giving back to the community and a disciplined social media approach, this operator says valuable marketing comes from paying it forward, once again coming back to the circular nature of Pi.

How have you grown during the recession?

We have a differentiated product and an artisanal love of pizza. We have two styles: deep-dish cornmeal crust and thin-crust. I think we have a mass appeal that way, and neither is an afterthought. We probably do about 50-50 between the two. We’ve also created an upscale environment here. So even in this down economy, people can come in and enjoy what they feel is an upscale dining experience and not drop a Ben Franklin. We felt all along that we benefit from the economic climate because with us you can still have a date night or bring the kids out and not have an empty wallet.

Do you have a target demographic?

When we first opened, we naively thought it would be 25 to 45. Thankfully, we were wrong. It’s more like zero to 100. We see three-generation families in here. We get couples in their 70s. But we’ve also found that our restaurant has a special crossover appeal. We’ll see a middle-aged couple in here on Friday night, and then a few days later, they come back with the kids. We still have a 25-to-45 core, but we try to appeal to a whole range.

What makes your menu special?

We always make sure we’re offering gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. That really opens us up to large parties and groups. For people who have specific dietary restrictions, this is great because everyone can agree on Pi. You can always fi nd something on our menu, whether it’s a salad or a vegan pizza.

Have you always offered gluten-free crust?

We added it a few weeks after opening. The decision came from listening and observing. We try not to get comfortable with our menu and have a healthy amount of paranoia. We’ve been one of the gluten-free leaders in the pizza world. We have gluten-free and vegan desserts. Even our products that aren’t vegan, we’ll make them special for the customers.

Do you ever struggle with your price point on gluten-free products?

It’s all more expensive, but we’re willing to absorb it because our customers appreciate it so much. We get feedback from people who say to us, “I haven’t been able to have pizza in 15 years, and I absolutely loved this!” These people aren’t our core business, but it’s worth a smaller profit margin to reach out to the customer.

Do you change your menu often?

About 20% of our menu items vary by store. So each store has a couple of unique pizzas and salads. And every store has an entirely unique dessert menu. Our chefs change our desserts monthly. For each store, the menu and the design play into the neighborhood. We’re sort of the “nonchain chain.” We’re not really comfortable with the term “chain,” but I guess we have to suck it up now and accept that we are. But we’re locally owned, so we feel like you could walk into Pi on the Central West End or Pi on Delmar Loop or Pi on Kirkwood and have no idea that the restaurants are related.

Do you market your mobile unit with Twitter?

We’ve been operating the mobile unit since June. We tweet when and where it’s going to be. I lived out in San Francisco for a while, where food trucks are much more common. There were a few places using Twitter with their units there, but it was still innovative when we started doing it here. I don’t know why anyone who has a mobile unit wouldn’t do this. We do this to try and push people to social media, to get them to follow us for reasons beyond where the truck is going to be. We’re early adopters of technology. We use an iPad as a POS on the truck!

How do you use an iPad as a POS?

We use a company, Square, that allows credit card payments wherever there is a cell phone signal. It works on iPads, iPhones and Android devices. Basically, it creates a limited POS program. You pay with a card, and it emails or texts the customer a receipt. What we like about it is that we can use the GPS to see what and how much we’re selling and where. Also, the company is partially locally based, and I think we were the first food vendor to use it. We like it because people can use a corporate credit card and get pizzas for the office at the truck, where before they may have had to get a receipt and be reimbursed.

Tell us about your sustainability efforts.

From our store’s inception, we decided the vast majority of our materials would be sustainable. Right now, 90% of our materials are reclaimed—art, furniture and flooring. We recycle about four to one of our waste. That means only about 25% of it goes into a landfill. I actually think we are going to get it down to near zero soon with our new compost partner. We have only draft beer because it’s sustainable. Our lighting is low-energy. Our carbon footprint is extremely small. We consider how every decision we make affects the environment. It’s always been part of our DNA.

Do you incorporate this theme into your marketing?

Our green mission is on our menus and our website. Our customers know it, and we get a lot of press for it. Most recently, we’ve adopted a box that’s recyclable, breaks down into four plates and folds in half to form a smaller leftovers box. We were the fi rst pizzeria in St. Louis to adopt it. It just makes sense, especially on our food truck.

What community organizations do you work with?

As a green business, we’re really involved with Earth Day, which is more of a year-round thing for us. I’m actually on the board of directors, for the Earth Day organization here, and I’m helping develop a green restaurant division of the organization. We try to focus on education by funding scholarships and donating food to environmental organizations. But, frankly, we donate to whatever organizations our customers get behind. We’re in the process of setting up a 501(c)(3) for accounting purposes so we can set up a philanthropic arm of the company. We’re hosting an online ordering campaign right now where every time you order you get the chance to donate to a local charity, and we’ll donate, too. Like our green mission, giving back to the community is a core part of our DNA. We’re constantly paying it forward, and our guests now view us as leaders in the community.

Does your green mission prevent print advertising?

As a green restaurant, we don’t print much in our operations. But from day one, we decided that we don’t pay for advertising. Social media and community involvement are the tools we decided we would get behind. Most salespeople know not to ask us to advertise. We say: “No, but we would love to donate to whatever fundraiser you’re hosting.”

Tell us about your digital marketing.

One of my favorite things is to engage our customers in social media. When they tell me they know exactly where our truck is, they know about our new pizza, they know we’ve won an award and where our new store is going to be—that’s all from social media! As a business, we have the fourth-largest following online in St. Louis. We used to send out press releases, but social media made this obsolete. All of the journalists follow us on Twitter and Facebook, so they just see our status then call to do an article about us.

Have you got a five-year plan?

I have to say no. I think if I knew what was going to happen in the future, I would be a unique individual. We have a lot of offers for investment, expansion and franchising, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the smartest money and the smartest growth. We’re going to continue to innovate, never get comfortable, and grow.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.