On Thursday, Dec. 7, PizzaMarketplace.com will announce its first-ever Chain of the Year. Since both we and this year's winner (who already has been notified) take the honor seriously, I thought it necessary to explain some of the rationale behind our decision.
Firstly, a Ouija board and dice were our most trusted aids.
Just kidding. The final choice was not easy, thus making the tools of witches and wayfarers a tempting option when, on the surface, no candidate appeared wholly better than all. The decision required real brain power, hard work that necessitated a thorough examination of each potential candidate.
As a news organization, we always have an ear to the rail listening for observations made by story sources, readers and industry suppliers. Over the past year, during the myriad phone calls for quotes, the leisurely dinners for fun and the "Hey, what do you know about this?" chats, we were conducting a straw poll for this award. You thought we invited you out just for a friendly beer, but we had the ulterior motive of getting your opinion — and, well, to get you to buy the next round.
In settling on our finalists, we examined the following criteria (their order does not rank their importance):
1. Positive comparable-store sales trends
2. Creative marketing/advertising initiatives
3. Use of technological advances to better the business
4. New product initiatives (and their success)
5. Hard numbers: growth in revenue, profit and unit count
6. Acknowledgement by industry peers or review groups (such as awards or rankings)
7. Any hard evidence (usually numbers) we could get our hands on to confirm or deny any of the above.
We also looked at some less tangible qualities:
History should repeat itself: We examined each finalist's recent past and its current direction. We wanted to know where it's been, how it's doing and where it's going. We thought a snapshot of what a chain does in a single calendar year was too limited. Since any star athlete can disappear into obscurity after his hottest season, we didn't want to honor a chain positioned for a tailspin with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." So we sought a company whose plan has succeeded in the near term and has positioned the firm for a bright future.
People power: We looked into the leadership at many pizza chains to gauge how positively the people in charge are influencing those companies. And since great leadership is reflected in happy, team-focused troops, we nosed around and asked about whether management was happy and whether turnover at the store level was high or low.
Purge and merge: Great chains are not only expansion-minded, they're courageous enough to prune the deadwood that saps their systems. We looked for and liked chains that did both. And lest you think we favored those mashing the growth accelerator the hardest, know that measured growth impressed us as well.
Opinions are biased, but they matter: As a reporter, you hear many opinions. And while you have to be careful which ones you trust, blending all of them into a sort of cognitive stew helps form a fairly reliable perspective.
For example, hearing an operator say, "Chain X is killing us," might just reflect that person's momentary frustration. But in the end, it
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puts us on the lookout for chances to substantiate that claim by listening to what other operators say about Chain X.
We also talk to other journalists watching the foodservice industry. Personally, I've found my peers unappealingly at ease with telling me I'm crazy on a particular subject; grudgingly, they even admit I'm right sometimes. So their opinions carry weight as well.
When our Chain of the Year story runs Dec. 8, it will include links to some smaller stories on Chains to Watch, companies that made waves in 2006. Most are in growth mode and most are trendsetters whose impact on the pizza business is unique — not to mention likely to be copied in some form. To see any of them become our Chain of the Year in the future wouldn't surprise our staff.
So by now, you're probably dying to know who won the award. Well, you'll have to wait — and shame on you for being so nosy!
Should yours not be this year's winner, but you think it should have been, feel free to start lobbying for 2007. As this year's research process taught us, we can use all the information we can get. You may e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.