The Venti vision

In the Buckhead area of Atlanta, with its mix of residential and corporate markets, the owners of Pizzeria Venti (pizzeriaventi-atlanta.com) have used clever promotions to realize growth potential through in-house dining and catering. As a franchisee of the Atlanta-based, 15-unit chain, Brain Lackey, who co-owns his Pizzeria Venti location with his father, enjoys the freedom to spice up his marketing efforts by creating his own specials and marketing materials. With savvy social media, free slice coupons, a diet-friendly 300-calorie menu, make-your-own-pizza parties and a line of seasonal gelato that was named best in the city by Metromix.com in 2010, Lackey has found that business can grow slowly but consistently even in a down economy—if you can plant yourself in the community’s mind. 

To discuss Pizzeria Venti Atlanta’s marketing efforts in further detail, PMQ asked Lackey about the keys to his business’ success.

Do you have a target demographic?

We feel that pizza is universal; however, we do offer several specials throughout the week that attract families. On Mondays and Wednesdays, we do a Friends and Family Night special, which includes a pizza, endless salad served in a family-size bowl, and sodas for a group of four. On Sundays, we offer a similar deal, featuring pasta: Nonna’s Dinner includes bottomless pasta and salad served family-style.

Do you advertise or distribute print materials?

Being in Atlanta, we have many different publications that we can advertise in, but we choose to keep our ads in our community’s papers. This works well for us because it keeps us in front of our core customers. We also created some print marketing materials that we drop off at local businesses; these list our weekly specials, our menu, a map of where we’re located, and a couple of coupons for them to come in and try us out.

What’s your approach toward social media?

Social media is a vital part of our marketing approach, and it’s key to our community involvement. It’s a great way to get the word out about specials or new menu items, and we get a lot of traction when we promote big events. For example, on our second anniversary, we gave away free slices of pizza all day. We posted the event on Twitter and Facebook; it was picked up by several local blogs, and one of Atlanta’s television stations featured it on the “Friday Freebies” segment. We share job leads on Twitter. We’ve posted information about lost pets, local school fundraisers, warnings about bad traffic, anything that might help or entertain our community. Overall, social media is an extension of our brand and our personality. It’s a fun way to interact with our customers, and we get a lot of positive comments from people who like to connect with the people behind the restaurant and who like to support a locally owned business.

Do you have any regular specials?

In addition to the family specials, we do lunch combo specials Monday through Friday and date night specials on Friday and Saturday, offering couples a shared appetizer, two pasta dishes and a shared dessert.

What’s your best marketing tool?

The most effective marketing tool has been our free slice card. Once the people of Atlanta taste our pizza, they’ll be lifelong customers. When we first opened, we gave out business card-sized coupons for free slices of pizza at local businesses—no strings attached. It got potential customers in the door, and our food did the rest.

What are some of the bestsellers on the menu?

When we started looking at nights to offer a buffet, we decided on Tuesday, because Wednesday is church night and Friday is already more than we can handle. Now Tuesday is tough to get into. We’re handcuffed by parking and seating right now—it’s a great problem to have!

What kind of response has your 300-calorie menu received?

We use all-natural ingredients and make everything fresh, so we know our pizza is healthy. When we had some regular customers say they’d be back after their diets were over, we realized we needed to do a better job showing customers how healthy our menu items are. We created the 300-calorie menu to show that you can eat pizza and still stay on your diet. We have five complete meal options on the 300-calorie menu. The option that includes a slice of cheese pizza is the same slice of pizza on our regular menu. We explain to customers that any of our single-veggie topping slices come in very low on calorie counts, too. The response has been very positive. People are happy that they don’t have to eat only salad to stick to their diets.

What’s your take on coupons?

We don’t issue many “X percent off” coupons. We opened just as the economy tanked, and in the midst of the recession, we experimented with coupons. Today, we offer a few for books that the local schools sell for fundraisers, and we’ve done a few that go to the neighborhood. We would rather give something for free, just to invite new customers to come in and give us a try, rather than giving them a percentage off the ticket. We think this protects the real value of our product.

Has the recession affected your business?

We opened in December 2008—at the start of the recession. When people are watching their wallets, they are less likely to try something new and unproven. We had to work extra-hard to get them to give us a chance. As I said, we went door to door at local businesses. It’s harder to get into the gated residential communities, but we were creative. In addition to direct mail pieces when we first opened, we met with concierge personnel at local condo buildings and asked them to share flyers. We’ve also gotten involved with the community by sponsoring local school events. We do wine tastings once a month, and we have a local group—Opera On Tap—that performs here once a month.

Do you have advice on how to make profits with catering and parties?

My advice on catering is to make sure you can handle the volume; it’s a great profit center if you can handle it. You need to make sure that your core business doesn’t suffer. We’ve ramped up our catering gradually to make sure we can handle the workload. It’s important that you understand your cost of goods so you can price large catering orders, when customers will be asking for volume discounts.

What is your philosophy regarding customer service?

I traveled to Italy for training before I opened my own restaurant. At the trattorias in Italy, I didn’t feel like a customer; I felt like a special guest. We strive to make our guests feel the same way. Although we have a fast casual concept without a full-service waitstaff, our staff is very attentive to customers—and we regularly receive compliments on our customer service. Our philosophy goes beyond getting food out to customers on time. We go out of our way to exceed expectations. For example, we recently hosted a children’s birthday party. When I spoke with the mom about renting our private dining room, she asked if we had any activities for kids. We came up with a “Create Your Own Pizza” party. I had kids’ aprons embroidered with our logo and purchased paper chef hats. On the day of the party, we let the kids top their own pizzas with whatever they wanted, and we baked the pizzas and served them to the kids. Everyone had a great time.

Andrew Abernathy is PMQ’s associate editor.