Tom Feltenstein offers 15 tips for outmaneuvering the national chains


It’s the nightmare shared by thousands of pizzeria operators everywhere: What will I do if a huge restaurant from a national chain opens nearby? In cities across the nation, restaurateurs have had to close their doors simply because they could not compete with the neighborhood Goliath. But, like David with his ordinary slingshot and immense courage, you can fight back and win.

In this month’s article—the first of a four-part series of features—I would like to share with you a number of outside-the-box promotional tactics designed to allay the fears of any pizzeria operator who ever wondered, “How can I possibly compete with the major chains?” Smaller businesses like yours can succeed by continually outmaneuvering their larger competitors. Here’s how:

Diamonds Are a Guest’s Best Friend. With this promotion, your pizzeria can forge a powerful partnership with a nearby jewelry store that benefits both businesses. Ask the jewelry store to supply you with, say, five high-quality diamonds and 2,500 synthetic diamonds. Place all of the diamonds in a big barrel in your pizzeria. Every time a customer makes a purchase, allow him to reach into the barrel and take a stone. Regardless of the diamond’s value, it’s the customer’s to keep. However, to find out if it’s genuine, he will have to take it to the jewelry store partner to be validated. (To ensure that the customer chooses your partner over a competitor, the jewelry store should offer something like a 10% discount on any purchase.) You won’t believe how much excitement this promotion will generate. It will create invaluable word-of-mouth throughout the community and boost traffic to your pizzeria and the jewelry store.

Employee Challenge. Create three gift certificates with special values and print them at the bottom of an 8”-by-11” copy of your pizzeria’s menu. Give 200 menus to each member of your staff and instruct them to write their names on the back of every gift certificate. Then send your employees out into the community to hand out the gift-certificate menus to local businesses. Depending on the value of the gift certificate, pay the employee a set finder’s fee for every customer who comes into the restaurant bearing a gift certificate with that staff member’s name on it. This promotion gets your employees heavily involved—and personally invested—as your marketing ambassadors. Instead of spending money on direct marketing or local print advertising, your staff will be your messengers, and they’ll be rewarded financially for their hard work.

Destroy Your Competitor’s Grand Opening. Here’s a dynamite idea for overstressing your new competitor while positioning yourself as a beacon of generosity. Let’s say your new neighbor plans a Wednesday grand opening a block away from your pizzeria. Using a full-page ad in the local newspaper, plus social media, direct mail and in-house signage, announce that you’ll be closing your doors that day out of respect for the new kid on the block. Invite all of your customers to attend that competitor’s grand opening instead. Sound crazy? Maybe not. With all the unexpected additional business, your competitor will be overstressed by the mad rush of customers and will be unable to serve them efficiently. Most likely, the chain restaurant will run out of product long before the end of the day. What a wonderful way to deflate Goliath’s oversized ego just when he’s all psyched up for the grand opening! I know of a restaurant that used this incredibly powerful tactic and ran its competitor right out of business shortly after its grand opening!

Chicago-based Connie’s Pizza delivers pizzas in mass quantities to community events in its custom-designed trucks.


The Platter Program. This is a can’t-miss promotion. Make it a job requirement for your general manager to call on a different local business every weekday and offer a free lunch to that company’s employees. The manager should take their orders and deliver the lunch to the office free of charge. One of my clients launched this program and reported a 30% increase in business in just a few weeks! Many of the company’s employees will become hooked on your pizzas and will seek you out for lunch or dinner in the future. This is an astonishingly effective way to introduce the people who work in your neighborhood to your product and establish customer loyalty for years to come.

The MVP Reward. Using direct mail, send $20 gift certificates to 300 households in your immediate neighborhood. The customers who redeem the certificates can apply $10 to purchases from your menu and $10 to the employee of their choice who provides the best service. Your employees will bend over backwards to cater to these customers’ every whim, and you will generate incredible customer interest—not to mention additional sales and profits.

Half-Price to Repeat Customers. In this promotion, any customer who makes a purchase at your restaurant today and returns within 24 hours receives 50% off any item he or she orders on the second visit. Because this promotion is so powerful, I recommend that you only use it every six months for a two-week period.
Clients who have implemented this promotion have registered sales increases of up to 13%.

Mystery Night. Set aside one specific hour on one day per week to offer free pizza. The catch is, no one but you and your staff will know which night and which hour it is. (You will have to swear your employees to absolute secrecy, of course.) Promote it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media to build up anticipation. You will be amazed at the long lines that will gather in anticipation of a possible free meal.

Roll the Dice Discount. This is a sure bet for attracting lines of customers that will rival the queues to purchase Powerball tickets. Put out the word that your customers will get to roll dice to determine how much of a discount they’ll receive on your food. The only gamble involved is how much the customer will save! Designate a specific night for this promotion and tout it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media as well as on your website and in emails or newsletters.

The Tijuana Toss. Once a customer places an order from the menu, the server flips a coin and the guest calls heads or tails. The loser—either the customer or the restaurant—pays for the order. Every customer who walks through the door has a 50-50 shot at getting a free meal. Obviously, this promotion can get expensive for you, so you probably shouldn’t make this a weekly event, but it will definitely generate customer interest, especially if you hype it on your website and through social media.

The Worst Table in the Joint. Many pizzerias have a table that customers avoid like the plague. Perhaps it’s too close to the kitchen, the bathroom or the front door. With this creative promotion, you’ll have customers lined up around the block for the privilege of sitting there. Simply offer half-priced meals at the worst table in your restaurant. Customers who arrive too late to get that table will still want to eat at your pizzeria—they’re already there! As an ancillary sales spinoff, you can create T-shirts that read, “I sat at the worst table in the joint at [your restaurant’s name], and it was the best meal I ever had!”

Offer half-priced meals for dining at the worst table in the house, and customers will line up around the block for the privilege of sitting there.


New Resident Mailing Program. This is one of the simplest and least expensive—yet most effective—ways to attract new residents to your pizzeria. Using a well-crafted direct mail piece, send out targeted mailings to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood and offer them a free meal or pizza. Make them feel at home, and your pizzeria will become their go-to choice in the future.

Benefit Minithons. Work with local charities or student groups to help them raise money for their causes. Offer them 20% of your overall sales on a particular evening, and these groups will work overtime to make the night a smashing success. Ask them to pass out fliers for the event, with your pizzeria name and logo prominently featured, and to promote the event to their members, family and friends via social media, email and snail mail. It’s also a great way to get coverage from the local press!

Bingo Cards. Even in this age of smartphones and social media, don’t underestimate the power of fun, old-school promotions. After all, everyone knows how to play Bingo. Create Bingo game cards that list different menu items in rows and columns of five, with a few “free” spaces sprinkled among them. Each time a customer buys an item on the bingo card, the corresponding space on the card is stamped or punched. When guests fill in a line across, up and down or diagonally, they qualify for a free item of their choice. (Put a time limit on this promotion—for example, you may want to require that a line be filled within 60 days to create a sense of urgency.)

Parking Tickets. You can’t be subtle if you want your coupons to get noticed—and everyone notices a parking ticket! Send employees out on “customer patrol” and have them place “tickets”—actually coupons for your pizzeria—on every car windshield in a given area. Instead of ordering customers to pay a fine, the tickets will tell the vehicle owners that they are “summoned to appear” at your restaurant to receive a half-price pizza or other lunch special.

Horoscope Ads. One of the best-read features in a daily newspaper is the horoscope. So it should come as no surprise that ads designed to look like horoscopes will attract readers’ attention. You can employ this little trick in newspaper display ads or even on your website or social media. Simply craft a message for your brand’s fans in the guise of a horoscope prediction, such as:

  • Scorpio (Oct. 23–Nov. 22): A charismatic leader will ask for your help organizing the group. Take the whole bunch for lunch at Luigi’s Pizzeria, where there’s something for everyone!
  • Sagittarius (Nov. 23–Dec. 22): What seemed like a flickering romance will become a passionate love affair with Luigi’s Pizzeria. Falling in love never tasted so good!

Tom Feltenstein is a restaurant marketing consultant and the CEO/founder of Tom Feltenstein’s Power Marketing Academy. Learn more at