• Now is the time to collaborate with your fellow business owners, whether they’re farmers, the family that handles your linens or even a local car wash, says Billy Manzo.
  • How do you get started? Just show up at a local business with a couple of pizzas and introduce yourself.

Related: 7 ways to draw customers into your pizzeria

By Billy Manzo Jr.

There’s so much talk lately about the economy sliding into a recession and ways in which pizzeria owners can not only survive but thrive. For me, it all comes down to one word: collaboration. The relationships we build with our vendors and everyone in our community will get us through the tough times.

I got my start in retail through a collaboration. In 2007, I was running a wholesale business. I was making dough and pizza shells in a 2,000-square-foot manufacturing plant near Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), the local prison here in Rhode Island. A bunch of my friends were guards at ACI, and they found out I had a plant across the street with a little test kitchen, where different buyers could come and taste my product.

“Dude,” they told me, “your pizza is unbelievable. Can you make us a couple of pies?”

I always had a tray of about 10 dough balls in the walk-in, so why not? I did it and thought that would be that. Then more orders started coming in—and they were getting bigger. One day, an ACI guy knocked on my door and said, “For lunch tomorrow, can you please make 10 pies for us?” Now I was selling 10 pies a day at 20 bucks apiece, but I was making 10 bucks in profit on each pie and pocketing $100 every day. Not bad.

Billy Manzo (left) teaches pizza making classes to locals to forge meaningful connections in his community.

One day, this girl came in. “I gotta order a pizza from you,” she said in a sharp Providence accent. “If I go visit my man today and don’t bring him one of your pizzas….You don’t understand, all the prisoners love your pizza!”

“Prisoners?” It turned out that the guards sometimes offered their pizza leftovers to the inmates, who jumped at the chance to have my pizza. (They didn’t get this kind of quality on the chow line.) And that’s when I started thinking about doing retail.

I may not be serving lunch to the ACI crowd anymore, but I’m always looking around for new ways to work with my vendors and my community. You should, too.

To collaborate with hometown businesses, start by introducing yourself to local growers. Adobe Stock

Collaborating With Vendors

I’m a huge collaborator with local farms—the guy who grows lettuce, peppers and tomatoes. For me, it all starts with what’s on the plate. All of these people have contacts, a consumer base, people who come to them. If you start building that collaboration, you can bring the consumer from the farm to the pizzeria and vice versa.

How do you start? Just go and introduce yourself. More often than not, that farmer will say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve tried your product. I buy it for my kids once in a while.” But you can transition that relationship from an occasional sale to a point where the farmer says, “Listen, I’ve got a case of tomatoes that didn’t sell. You’re going to cook them in the oven, so you want them for half-price? Or do you just want ’em?”

Or the farmer might say, “We’ve got a gig going on. Do you want to come and make some pizza at the farm?” Next thing you know, you’ve got a little side hustle going on. You can do this with the local butcher or cheese maker too. Remember, just because you use one cheese doesn’t mean you can’t talk to a local cheese guy (or gal) and come up with a special—just between you and him—as an appetizer or a pizza.

Or how about the guy who sharpens your knives? Our guy charges me 10 bucks every other week. One time, he came in and was having something to eat—whenever vendors walk into my place, they’re going to eat—and he said, “Listen, are you looking for another location?”

I said, “Well, I’m always looking.”

“I shouldn’t do this, but you’re cool, and I might know of a place,” he said. Because of that relationship and respect, he pointed me in a direction that I never would have heard of. Then the relationship went further. One day I asked him, “If I did a YouTube video and you talked about the importance of a sharp knife and what it could do, would you be up for that?”

So we made a video together—something really quick and fun in my kitchen about his company and the importance of sharpening your knives. He had 15,000 people watching him on social media, got a bunch of jobs out of it, and, for four or five months, he sharpened my knives for nothing.

That’s collaboration.

We had local school kids come in for a month and draw pictures on our plain pizza boxes. Crayons on the table. Smiles on their faces. The kids’ parents were sharing those boxes all over social media.

Collaborating With the Community

Vendors aren’t your only potential collaborators. Just about everyone is. When I’m out running an errand in my community, I always bring my business cards with me—two 12” pizzas. Why? Because when people see the Federal Hill Pizza logo on my shirt, my hat or my car, they always joke around with me: “Hey, you didn’t bring any pizza?” It happens everywhere.

It happened so much at my local car wash that, when I get my car washed every month now, I bring those guys two 12” pizzas. What happened as a result? 1) They got a kick out of it, of course. 2) They started ordering lunch from me. 3) One day, the car wash owner found out what I was doing and said, “Hey, I have an idea. How about every time we wash a car, we put a coupon for your pizzeria on the windshield?” That’s as many as 400 coupons, or 400 potential new customers, in a day!

Another idea: We had local school kids come in for a month and draw pictures on our plain pizza boxes. Crayons on the table. Smiles on their faces. The kids’ parents were sharing those boxes all over social media. So think about a collaboration between your business and local families. Some of these kids are great designers! (You can even collaborate with an art school, if you like.)

Or how about just remembering your customers’ names and birthdays? If you go to The Capital Grille, chances are the hostess or the waiter won’t know your name, your kid’s birthday or anything about your family. But you should. Store your customer’s info in your POS, including their kids’ birthdays: “Hey, Mike, it’s your birthday! Pizza’s on us!” That’s a boat many of us miss in our industry.

When I’m out running an errand in my community, I always bring my business cards with me—two 12” pizzas.

“But, wait, Billy,” you might say. “How is this considered collaboration?” 1) The birthday kid probably has lots of friends who eat pizza, and they’re likely to come in with their families for their birthday. 2) You can post about each birthday on social media—with the parents’ permission, of course—and get free publicity. 3) That kid will always remember you did something special for him. One of the kids I gave a free pizza to became a local weatherman. Now, once in a while, he’ll mention on the air that he’s going to dinner at Federal Hill Pizza—all because I was cool with him and his parents. You never know where these people are going to end up!

In a recent social media post, we asked our customers to build their own pizza. We got about 50 entries, picked one, and, for two weeks, we ran that pizza as a special under the name of the pizza designer: Bob Smith’s Pizza, Grandma Betsy’s Pizza, Murphy’s Law Office Pizza. Whatever they want to name it. For two weeks, people called and said, “I want to try the Murphy’s Law Office Pizza!” It was a lot of fun—and great publicity for Murphy and me! You wouldn’t necessarily think this type of outside-the-box thinking is a collaboration, but everybody out there has contacts and connections.

Listen, there’s a misconception that the time to do this stuff is when the money’s rolling in. Wrong. It’s when times are tough, like now, that you’ve got to work those connections. Lately, I’ve been reading about pizzeria operators thinking of opening multiple units or wanting to expand. That’s insanity right now. We need to batten down the hatches with our one or two locations and pound away at our vendor and consumer connections.

This is the time when you need people—you need to be there for them as much as, hopefully, they’ll be there for you. Become one with the farmers, the company that makes the boxes, the family that handles your linens. Get involved with everybody around you. It’s crucial that, in a bad economy, you make your foundation even stronger  

Billy Manzo Jr. is a veteran restaurant operator and the owner/chef of Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island.

Billy Manzo, Marketing