University marketing 301: standing out in a small town

Athens, Ohio is home to a four-year university known as Ohio University and to a pizzeria that has been celebrating a lot of fours lately.

Avalanche! Pizza is in its fourth year of business and has been the four-year reigning "Athen's Best Pizza". On top of that, John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche!, has four major points of business that make it a success. These four points are the cleanest pizzeria, the best prices, the best product and the friendliest staff in town. This formula of four has provided four years of success for John. He shared some of his secrets to success in a college town with PMQ recently.

Avalanche! History

Avalanche! started with a struggle for financing. John went to several banks to get funding for his store. "I thought getting the money wouldn't be a problem," he says. "It was a very humbling experience to be 38 years old, asked for assets and realizing that I didn't have what they wanted."

John finally got financed and struggled even more with opening the store. The store was previously a Little Caesar's. John walked right in to some shady dealings with the previous owner before he opened. "The previous owner had asked me not to come into the store during the last few weeks it was theirs," he says. "I regretted it later, but I agreed. I did go in the place once and saw the owner spray painting the ceiling tiles white instead of replacing them as I had asked him to do. Also, the manager was walking away with some of the cooking equipment."

John's clientele is mostly college students because the small town has about 8,000 permanent residents and about 20,000 students. "The college is basically the town," Brynne Humphreys, general manager of Avalanche! says. "The residents are our largest client base and our biggest supporters. Our hardest group to market to is the new freshman. Fall is when we do most of our advertising."

Getting the College Vote

Having only 23,000 or so people to work with and competition from two Pizza Huts, one Domino's, one Papa John's, one Pizza Inn and two other independently owned stores calls for a need to stand out from the crowd. John's solution is volume sales. He has a special that runs all the time called the "Three Pizza Deal". The deal is three large one-topping pizzas for $14.99. This low price reaches out to college students who John says are "broke in some form or fashion. They're very price-oriented."

Student orders make up 80 percent of all orders, according to Brynne. A slow weeknight ends with about 200 pizzas sold. Weekends are definitely their biggest days. "Last Friday we sold 595 pies," Brynne says.

Groups are a big supporter of their business. "Fraternities and sororities buy 20, 30, 40 and 50 pizzas at a time," John says. "I cut down on the price for them if they're ordering in that large of a quantity." Another large customer base for them is the college staff and professors. "The professors have to use their charge cards for food orders," Brynne says. "OU encourages getting the best deal. They can get that with us."

John is able to know what college students want because he has his own focus group right on board. Almost all of the employees are college students. "These guys are my taste testers," John says.

John's found the cream of the crop when it comes to hardworking students. His general manager, Brynne, is a junior in college and only 21 years old. She recently won first place in the U.S. Pizza Team Culinary Trials for gourmet pizza. Brynne says, "I was pretty pessimistic about it. I didn't want to be embarrassed in front of these guys that owned shops for 20 years. I was absolutely blown away when I won." Not only is it great for the pizzeria that she won, but she says, "It's great for our area too. Everything on the pizza is from a local farmer. A local bakery supplied the feta cheese. The chicken was bought from a local farmer." The icing on the cake for Avalanche! is that another employee, Max Rhinehart, also placed in the USPT Gourmet Trials.

Biggest Night of the Year

For most pizzerias, Halloween is a huge night, but Avalanche! has an added bonus. It just so happens that Athens hosts one of the biggest college parties in the country each Halloween. The OU Block Party encompasses a three-block square. Brynne says this is by far their biggest night because "everyone who goes to school here brings in five friends from out of town. The deliveries are huge on this night for Avalanche! "We deliver pizzas all night up until four in the morning," Brynne says.

The first year Avalanche! was in business they set up a booth on the street during the block party. "This didn't work out because we didn't have any electricity and the cost was not worth it," Brynne says. "Now, we just stock up on people and try to get deliveries out."

Getting the Name Out

John may have the cheapest pizza in town, but he may very well have the most generous heart. They give aid to many different charities in the form of food. "No one supports some of these organizations," John says. "I help out with auctions, homeless shelters and pretty much anyone who needs it."

One thing he did in the past was feed the volunteers for these charities. Now, he feeds only those who need it. Brynne elaborated on some of the charities and groups they help. Many of the Greek organizations have benefits for charity. For instance, one fraternity hosts an auction with gift certificates from around town. "We give gift certificates to these auctions," she says. "For another group hosting a video game tournament, we are feeding everyone participating."

Avalanche! is a sponsor of sporting programs at OU. They give free food to the sports teams. John also sponsors kid's sports teams in the community. One thing I found interesting is the amount of thank you letters Avalanche receives for their generosity. These letters can be seen in the lobby of the restaurant and on their website. They also give kids rewards for doing well in school. Those who go through the D.A.R.E. program receive a free order of breadsticks. Others get a free small pizza by completing a reading program. "We try to give back to the community, when we support them, they will support us. Some people make t-shirts with our name on it. Some hang our banners up and others put our names on their flyers," Brynne says.

Getting Through the Summer Months

As with most of the pizzerias in college towns, the summer months can be slow. John has a few ways to get through this. They don't advertise much in the summer because according to Brynne, "the locals know we have the best pizza and price." Staff hours are cut during the summer, and the pizzeria closes earlier. They close at 10 on weeknights and 12 on the weekends. During the school year the shop is open until one during the week and two on weekends.

Avalanche! offers a pizza that is huge during summer months called the Farmer's Market Pizza. This pizza is completely seasonal and boasts seven to eight veggie toppings dependent on what's available. The produce comes from all local farmers. "It kills during the summertime," John says.

Marketing Secrets

John's biggest marketing device is his three for one deal. He cuts costs by making customers pick it up. The deal only allows two pizzas for delivery. To get through slow Mondays, he offers a large one topping for $4.99.

To get kids in the restaurant he offers them some fun. "In our lobby, we let kids draw on white boxes with crayons," he says. "We hang them on the wall-it's like an explosion in our front hall with all of the colors and different 'artists.' I want kids to drive by and say "'Look, Avalanche! I wanna go!' and then come back several years later when they're in college." He also offers pizza goggles, stickers and small toys to kids.

Advertising

Most of the advertising is done in the fall to get the new students to try Avalanche! They do a big ad in the university phone book. They also do a newspaper ad twice a week with specials and coupons. John offers web coupons at www.avalanchepizza.net. He also does a weekly mailer and box toppers all with coupons offering deals like one large one-topping pizza and an order of bread sticks for $7.99 and a large one-topping for $6.99.

John initially had a marketing guy to do ads, but he recently got a digital camera and does all ads himself. He uses a combination of Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat to create his ads. "I just have so much fun doing the ads," John says. They're one of the highlights of my day."

John has done some experimental advertising that was accepted with mixed reviews. At first, he tried marketing in a hip '70s way using words like "dude." This didn't work. "I found that the college students responded to the better deal more than how cool the advertising was."

John's first ad was a major mistake for his business, but he says he learned from it. He advertised the opening of the restaurant by attempting to do a "mysterious" ad in the newspaper. Starting three weeks before the opening, he ran an ad (supposed to be advertising the three pizzas for $14.60 that divided the cost up to $4.87 per pizza. "My wife told me to put an asterisk and explain the terms," he says. "I didn't and the day I opened, I had lots of people come in and demand one pizza for the $4.87 price." When he attempted to explain the special was for three pizzas, the customers mentioned that the ad said $4.87 a pizza. "I had to give it to them," he says. "Now, I'm an asterisk kind of guy. I put them on everything!"

Polling Customers

John has an online menu and comment card. "I couldn't believe that the online card would get such a response. Once a month, I take the online cards and draw three winners. They get a free large, three-topping pizza. One of the winners was a girl who lived in a dorm on campus. After she got the free pizza, she called and told me, 'I told everyone in the dorm you gave me a free pizza for filling out the online form."

POS: Way to Go

John started his business without a POS system. He now uses a RapidFire POS System. Again, he learned from his mistake. "It was a bad idea not to have one," he says. "We'd spend hours at night after we closed trying to count the tickets. The system kept up with all of that for us. I save three to four hours a day with the system."

Employees Key to Success

Brynne told me that they prefer people with previous experience. She says that it makes running the place much easier when everyone "knows how to work every station. We like for it to flow like water. We have a small place; you gotta be able to go."

John holds employee service above everything else. His staff must be friendlier than anyone else in town. "I'm more proud of being named the 'friendliest business in town' than of the 'best pizza' award. That means we have 20 different people being nice all at once. I'm really proud of them." He says his best example of friendly service was just last week "when a woman walked up to me and told me that one of my guys was so nice she thought he was the owner. I thought this was one of the best compliments Avalanche! has ever gotten."

Business Philosophy

John knows price matters in the pizza business, but he says above all else "you have to decide whether your pizza place is going to be a destination place or a convenience place. If it's a destination, you have to have the best of everything-the best products, the best pizza and the best atmosphere."