Story by Rick Hynum | Photos by Meg Porter Photography
Sarah Thomas is just six years old, but she is fast becoming a crucial player in the marketing strategy for her dad’s single-store operation, Wild Slice in Roswell, Georgia. That’s because Sarah can get her hands on something the pizzeria needs every February: cookies, and lots of them. Girl Scout Cookies, specifically.
Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs—Mike Thomas, who owns the family-centric Wild Slice with his wife, Cristy, will buy all the cookies he can get. It’s not that he has an out-of-control sweet tooth. He just has a remarkable knack for making waves on social media, an essential marketing tool for today’s restaurateurs. And, along with his gigantic, Instagrammable Wild Slices that sell for up to $51, nothing delivers more buzz in the winter months than Girl Scout Cookie dessert pizzas, Thomas’ own invention.
“Having the word ‘wild’ in our name allows us to do whatever we want,” notes Thomas, a restaurant industry veteran who cut his teeth at the Reno, Nevada-based Bully’s Sports Bar & Grill chain. “We’re a no-budget pizzeria. We don’t have an investor or an SBA loan. We’ve just got our savings and have to hustle to get things done. Girl Scout Cookie pizzas, big, oversize, crazy slices, social media—you have to do everything you can.”
Thomas, who also invented National Pizza by the Slice Day (August 22) in 2018, has been hustling for Wild Slice—the first restaurant he has owned himself—for two years. But his marketing approach is so polished, you could easily mistake Wild Slice for a national chain. And that’s exactly what Thomas had in mind from the start.
Filling the Young-Family Niche
Starting out at a neighbor’s diner in Carson City, Nevada, Thomas learned the restaurant business by working at every job you can imagine—busboy, dishwasher, line cook, bartender and, eventually, manager. He became director of operations and marketing for Bully’s, where he met Cristy, an Atlanta-born teacher of special-needs children. “Cristy’s sister had twin boys two days after our daughter was born,” he says. “They agreed the kids had to grow up together, so we packed up and moved across the country [to Georgia].”
Thomas served as a regional manager for Hooters Georgia East for two years, all the while hatching a plan for his own pizzeria with a distinctive brand and a mission to serve families with young children—and the community they called home. After her first set of twins, his sister-in-law had welcomed another pair into the world, while the Thomas family had added a baby boy, James. “When we would all go out to eat as a family, we would have six kids under the age of six,” he says. “With pizza, you can feed that many people for less than anything else, but there are not a lot of restaurants that will embrace you. The majority didn’t want us there and would put us in the back, and the other guests would glare at us. We would always end up eating only at the couple of places that would welcome six young kids.”
Thomas knew a profitable niche when he saw one. “To create a brand, there was a gap I could fill by embracing families—specifically, the younger families who can grow up with us,” he says. “Young families haven’t established their favorite dining place yet. It was a chance for me to capture them when they’re young and get them to stick with us.”
“We’re a family pizzeria dedicated to serving the community. We look for every opportunity to build relationships. It’s not about going wide and doing something small for as many people as I can. I try to go more deep than wide, build relationships and connections, and keep following up.”
—Mike Thomas, Wild Slice
Building a Foundation
After a soft opening in December 2017, Thomas launched Wild Slice officially—complete with a trademark on the name—on February 2, 2018. Branding was on his mind from the get-go, but making delicious pizza was his No. 1 priority. “We didn’t sell the oversize slices for the first eight months,” he says. “First, I had to work on our foundation—the dough, sauce, cheese, my team, developing procedures. Building the foundation of a good pizzeria that serves the community was a lot more important than the gimmick of a big pizza slice. I didn’t want to be a gimmick pizzeria. I didn’t want to be known for the big slices if the pizza wasn’t going to be good. We built our reputation for quality first, then we came up with ideas to build the brand and set ourselves apart.”
Once he was satisfied with his food, Thomas recorded all of his recipes, processes and systems—with photos—in a company handbook. “Although this is my first time to own my own place, I’ve worked for companies, big and small, where I learned the importance of processes and systems and documenting everything,” he says. “When you’re coaching your team, you must have it all written down, so you can say, ‘This is what we went over, this is how it needs to be done.’ You can only expect what you inspect.”
The next step was to make Wild Slice a pizza-scented home away from home for locals. Since kids usually decide where families eat out, Thomas designed his shop to be a child-friendly destination. There’s a mini-arcade in the back with Pac-Man, Galaga and claw machines. For Kids Eat Free Night every Monday, he offers complimentary game tokens and a 7” pizza for the little ones as long as an accompanying adult buys a pie, salad or sandwich.
After his church expressed interest in a weekly pizza social for families, Thomas decided to combine it with a Thursday trivia night that hadn’t gotten much traction. “I liked the idea of having a core built-in crowd each week that I couldn’t consistently get with the more adult-oriented trivia night,” he says. “We run it from 5:30 to 7 p.m., so the kids can get home at a decent time on a school night. We have pop-culture questions that kids can answer. They pick a family team name, answer questions, eat some discounted pizza and have a nice family bonding moment, with gift certificates and prizes.”
Thomas has also built relationships with other churches and faiths in the area, hosting youth group events and fundraisers and catering church activities. “When we can do something that’s nice for the community, in my eyes that more than pays for itself in terms of the reputation of the business and the brand,” he says. “People like to support businesses that support their church or school or baseball team.”
“New-Age Food Critics”
There’s another key group that has thrown its support behind Wild Slice: social media influencers. They’ve been vital to the brand’s growing fame, both in the Atlanta area and nationwide. Young, hip and marketing-savvy, these influencers often have large followings, especially on Instagram, and a broad reach. But tasty food isn’t enough to get them through your door—they’re all about great visuals. Which brings us to two of Thomas’ most inspired creations: the giant-sized Wild Slice and the Girl Scout Cookie pizza.
Thomas created his 24” Wild Slices, made with two pounds of dough, as a marketing ploy, plain and simple. “I was looking for ways to get people to take pictures and share their experience on social media,” he says. “We’re obviously not the first pizzeria to do a giant slice—we just have the perfect name for it.”
“Giant slices work for me. But there are thousands of pizzeria owners who don’t have that hook but can still have great success with social media. Just don’t treat it like you’re trying to sell something in every post. Give them content they want to consume.”
—Mike Thomas, Wild Slice
To develop his social media content, Thomas brought in Hayley Langholtz, a foodie influencer in her own right, with nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram. She comes in once a month to shoot bright, fun, eye-catching photos of customers munching on Wild Slices, as well as new menu items. “Because of Hayley, I was able to bring in other influencers,” Thomas says. “They’re the new-age food critics. When you get one of them into your restaurant, it’s like The New York Times coming in and giving you a review back in the ’80s. But there are a lot more influencers, because it’s so easy to get started and grow.”
After six months in business, Wild Slice held its first tasting event specifically for social media influencers, with Langholtz as the host and the oversized slices as the draw. “These were the smaller influencers—I don’t know if we had one with more than 10,000 followers,” Thomas says. “But they posted and shared the photos, and people would see their stuff and come in, saying, ‘I saw it on Instagram. It looked so good, I had to try it myself.’”
The next event drew better-known influencers with larger followings. “It grew to a point where we now get contacted almost on a weekly basis by influencers asking to come in,” Thomas notes. “The answer is always yes.”
The Naughty Fork
But Thomas landed one of his biggest influencers after developing the Girl Scout Cookie pizza, one of the most Instagram-friendly foods in the pizza sector. He says he was scrolling through Facebook on his phone one night last winter when he hit upon the idea. It was Girl Scout Cookie season, and many users were posting excitedly about their cookie orders. “I Googled ‘Girl Scout Cookie pizza’ to see if anything popped up,” Thomas says. “There was nothing. So I reached out to Hayley, and she loved the idea.”
Thomas bought boxes of Samoas, Thin Mints and Tagalongs and started playing around with dessert pizza recipes. “The Samoa is a white cookie with a hole in the middle with caramel, toasted coconut and a chocolate drizzle,” he says. “So I stretched out a round pizza, cut a hole in the center, poured caramel sauce on it, crumbled up the cookies with some toasted coconut and added the chocolate drizzle. Now I had a large Samoan cookie pizza. I took some pictures and put it out on social media. Originally, I did it just to create content for Instagram that people would share and like and comment on. It wasn’t going to be anything that we’d sell. But almost immediately we started getting phone calls and people coming in, asking for it.”
The Girl Scout Cookie pizza proved irresistible to Miami-based social-media influencer Samantha Schnur of The Naughty Fork. She covers everything from burgers and burritos to pancakes and donuts and has nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram. “When she reached out to us about coming in for a Wild Slice, I told her about the Girl Scout Cookie pizza and sent her pictures. She was, like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing!’”
When Schnur showed up at the pizza shop, Thomas combined his two best gimmicks into one mouthwatering monster—a Girl Scout Cookie Wild Slice. “Once she started posting it for us, other big influencer accounts like Food Beast started to share our stuff,” Thomas says. “She made it legitimate. And while she was in Atlanta, we were the only restaurant she visited, which was very flattering. She can charge a restaurant $5,000 per post—this is her business. She did it for free for us, because she liked what we were doing.”
Building a National Franchise
Every time an influencer like Schnur posts Wild Slice photos, the pizzeria’s own social media gets a boost in followers and engagement. And now that his daughter, Sarah, has joined the Girl Scouts, Thomas never has to worry about running low on cookies when February rolls around. Meanwhile, he isn’t shy about telling his story the old-fashioned way—through press releases for local media. When promoting National Pizza by the Slice Day, he lists every participating pizzeria in his releases and has used the “holiday” to raise funds for The Drake House, a Roswell nonprofit that serves homeless mothers and their children.
As Wild Slice’s reputation for great food, atmosphere and innovation spreads, Thomas envisions growing the brand regionally and then nationally. He hopes to bring in investors to create a franchise concept that will work in any market. “Our goal is to have three to five company-owned locations in Atlanta suburbs that fit our formula,” he says. “Once we have the processes and systems figured out for multiunits and have a management structure in place, our ultimate goal is to become a franchisor and allow Wild Slice to grow from there. It’s probably a 10-year plan, and we’re in year two, so we have an uphill climb ahead of us.”
But his decades of experience with Bully’s and Hooters have prepared him for the challenge. “This is the first time in a long time that I’ve worked out of just one location,” he adds. “It’s my goal to go back to my sweet spot and serve and add value to more communities. I want people to be excited to buy a home that’s located in the delivery area of a Wild Slice.”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor-in-chief.