While pizza is a great complement to a Friday evening get-together or a Sunday afternoon spent watching football, there is one part of the day where pizzeria operators have often struggled to compete.
Lunch has traditionally been a weak spot for pizzeria operators, unlike quick-service restaurant operators, who tend to do the bulk of their business during weekday lunch. Customers tend to look at pizza as something that costs more and takes longer than traditional fast food.
"Pizza is a fun thing and a people thing, but lunch seems to be more of an individual thing," said Joe Devellis, co-owner of three Giove's Pizza Kitchen restaurants in Connecticut.
"I don't care what market you're in, what happens with lunch is that people tend to be more concerned with the dollar and less concerned about the food, especially if they are buying if for themselves," he said. "Also, people don't always have as much time for lunch as they used to."
Giove's traditionally does about between 30 and 40 percent of its sales during lunch, depending on the location.
As pizzerias try to remain profitable in the face of a sagging economy and rising costs, operators are turning to a number of methods in order to boost lunch traffic. Devellis has supplemented his lunch menu with a variety of items that are quick and easy to prepare.
"We do premade pizza slices, pizza rolls and things like that, we have sandwiches and we do pasta," he said. "Ideally, you want to get the food out within seven minutes, because if it takes longer than that, people start to get antsy."
To cater to value-oriented customers, Devellis offers a lunch special featuring a small pizza and a soft drink for $5.99. Although it may take a bit longer than a sandwich or a pasta dish, people don't mind waiting because it's such a good deal, he said.
One thing Devellis doesn't offer at lunchtime, however, is a "get it quick or it's free" guarantee.
"Nothing is guaranteed, because if you get a lot of business you are screwed, and you're already giving people a discount," he said. "You have to make money or there's no point in being in business."
Banking on buffets
Some operators have long banked on lunch buffets as a way to build traffic. Alhambra, Calif.-based Shakey's Pizza began offering its Bunch of Lunch Buffet in the late 1960s.
The Bunch of Lunch Buffet accounts for nearly 80 percent of Shakey's lunchtime sales, officials said.
"Our focus at lunch is on the time-stressed guest," said Rebecca Black, senior director of operations and franchise support for Shakey's USA. "(Our guests) can walk in, pay for their food and be eating within three minutes."
Key to operating a successful buffet is offering a variety of choices and making sure the product is fresh, Black said. Shakey's buffets offer at least half a dozen varieties of pizza along with chicken, the chain's signature Mojo potatoes, vegetables and a salad bar.
There is a risk of taking things too far with a buffet, she said.
"A few years ago we got away from our pizza, chicken and Mojo focus and we tried to be all things to all people," she said. "That doesn't work, so we spent a few years streamlining what was on the buffet. When we focused on rotating the pizzas and having a lot of pizza out there, our sales definitely increased."
Other operators try to keep it as simple as possible. Basic Urban Kitchen in San Diego offers a simple one-page menu that features two sizes of pizza, a variety of toppings, and a basic salad.
Le Golosita, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria in Henderson, Nev., offers daily specials and a fixed-price menu in order to attract the business-lunch crowd. The restaurant also offers many of its specialty pizzas by the slice during the day, and the restaurant offers space where businesses can hold meetings over lunch.
Speeding things up
Although the major chains concentrate most of their marketing efforts at increasing nighttime pizza sales, they're looking at ways to boost daytime business as well. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's recently introduced a line of sub sandwiches in an effort to capture more lunch business.
"This launch springboards Domino's into the lunch business by providing a product that is high quality, priced right and aimed at convenience-minded people without a lot of time," said Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA. "People fed up with brown-bagging or driving to pick up something cold can save some time and gas by ordering a hot Domino's sandwich for delivery to their home or office."
story continues below...
This story and all of our great free content is supported by:
Emperor's Brand Vodka Booth 358A Meet the "Emperor" and sample the smooth, clean and distinct taste, of vodka distilled six times from selected grain found north of France.
And Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's has been hinting for several years that the company planned to make a serious effort to boost its lunch business. In an April 2008 conference call with investors and analysts, chief executive Nigel Travis said the company was pursuing opportunities outside the dinner daypart and "lunch was on the horizon."
Several years ago the company began replacing its ovens with a high-speed version dubbed the "WOW" oven, manufactured by Elgin, Ill.-based Middleby Corp. The oven, which cut baking time by two minutes, has been installed in most of the company's 600 corporate restaurants. Franchisees have been adopting the oven as well.
The WOW oven promises to be a key component of Papa John's lunch strategy, although the company couldn't provide an update on its lunch plans.
"We view lunch as a very important daypart and we continue to look for ways to expand our sales at lunchtime," said Papa John's spokesman Chris Sternberg.