Diana Coutu's grandfather dubbed her "the entrepreneur of the family" when she was only 13, and for good reason. Coutu's babysitting service was booked months in advance "because I actually played with the kids and didn't talk on the phone or watch TV. I was in demand."
A few years later, she opened her own home cleaning service, had four weekly clients and hired her friends to help her. In the summer she ran her own lawn-care service and delivered newspapers, and in her spare time made and sold stained-glass jewelry.
Coutu's can-do attitude is a hallmark of her life, and that drive to succeed has helped her push the creative edge in running Diana's Gourmet Pizza in Winnipeg, Manitoba, along with husband Pierre.
Excluding the Coutus, Diana's 950-square-foot space is bursting at the seams with 18 employees busy making, baking and delivering gourmet pizza, as well as preparing the company's line of take-and-bake and frozen pies. Very soon Diana's will move to a 2,300 square-foot store, which the Coutus view as the launching pad for opening 100 stores in the next five years.
Absolutely, Diana said.
"I know 100 stores is possible because we're laying the groundwork now to have a very aggressive turnout of solid franchisees," she said. "I expect by the end of 2007 we'll have 60 stores up and running. We're assembling a team of very selected individuals who have expertise in areas that will help us grow."
Soft deals, hard lessons
Coutu's enthusiasm and self-confidence come naturally, but she gained her business savvy the hard way. After she and Pierre met more than a decade ago while delivering for Domino's Pizza, their boss approached them about opening their own store.
When the deal didn't materialize, the Coutus, then still boyfriend and girlfriend, became sort-of franchisees for a competitor. A handshake deal got the doors open and the ovens on, but neither party signed any official documents.
Still, sales at the Coutus' store took off and in six months had passed total sales posted at the company's other two units. That made the franchisor uncomfortable, and the business relationship ended shortly after.
"We didn't do our due diligence, and it cost us," she said. "We were very angry at ourselves and them."
Down, but not out, the Coutus opened up their own company called Pizza Stop. Business came, but not in the droves they expected. Occasional complaint calls from Pizza Hut customers gave them a clue that the store's name might be a problem.
"Our name didn't sound like anything other than an ordinary pizza place," she said. "The pizza market in Winnipeg is very competitive, and with a name like Pizza Stop, we were getting lost in the sea of ordinary pizzerias."
To understand where Pizza Stop needed changing, the Coutus studied other successful businesses, business models and marketing strategies. They learned their operation lacked distinctiveness and a unique selling proposition. Recognizing a lack of high-end pizza in their market, the couple opened Diana's Gourmet Pizza in 2004. The change suited Diana's creative nature perfectly.
"I'm a good eater, but I'm particular. It has to be good food prepared well," Diana said. "I got bored with same old pizza, so I started looking for different things to do."
Diana's menu features four crust types, as well as unique toppings such as oysters, spicy eggplant, Cajun and teriyaki chicken, chick peas, Capicolla ham and asparagus. Its pizzas are more expensive than most competitors', but Diana said customers perceive the quality as worth the cost.
"We guarantee our product 100 percent," she said. "We don't do two-for-ones, we have a different product and different style of marketing than do many of the chains."
Pierre, who focuses on operations, said his wife's creativity keeps him busy finding ways to put her ideas on the menu.
"Diana is not afraid to experiment, and I like her new ideas because we set ourselves apart by doing things other pizza places won't do or can't do," he said. "She's always looking for something better, newer, faster, quicker and stronger, a different dough, a new sauce or cheese blend. She's always trying to innovate, to do something no one else has done before."
Diana's now-famous Moosehead beer crust helped put the pizzeria on the map, and it played a part in her garnering Canadian Pizza Magazine's 2005 Canada's Best Pizza Chef award.
Marriage and the workplace
While the mix of matrimony and business can yield a caustic cocktail for some couples, the Coutus said they've learned how to grow the business without neglecting their marriage. The trials of their earlier business struggles taught them to stick together, Pierre said.
"We've been through a lot, so we've learned that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he said. "We talk back and forth a lot to help each other out. When we disagree, it's not about her being right or me being right, it's about the business being right."
Diana said keeping it all in balance means
I'm a good eater, but I'm particular. It has to be good food prepared well. I got bored with same old pizza, so I started looking for different things to do
— Diana Coutu, co-owner, Diana's Gourmet Pizza
remembering why she's married.
"There are days when we inadvertently take things out on each other," she said. "We have to stop and say, 'I'm not angry at you, I'm stressed with this situation.' I realize he's my best friend, my partner, my spouse, and that I couldn't do without him."
No doubt the Coutu's aggressive growth plans will test their marriage even more, but for now, the pair is focused on moving to a facility more than twice the size of the present Diana's. Not only will the bigger shop allow them to handle more business — on the busiest Fridays they close some phone lines to make the pace manageable — they'll gain more room for production and storage of their frozen and take-and-bake pizzas. They consistently run out of both products despite marketing them minimally.
The couple wants the majority of its new operations to open south of the border in the United States, where they believe there is a void for gourmet delivery pizza. Their system is solid and duplicatable, Diana said, and she views time as the only hurdle between one store and 100 stores.
"Our rapid growth plans are set up for U.S. cities with a large population of affluent individuals who appreciate what we do," she said. "More and more consumers are looking for something that will satisfy their needs for a meal, but won't make them feel as though they're doing something terrible to their bodies. Our product and marketing fills that gap in the marketplace."