The pizza industry has mastered both delivery and gourmet pizza, but Dwayne Northrop believes his chain is the only to marry both successfully. Seeing an opportunity to fill the gourmet delivery void, Northrop and some partners formed Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza in Everett, Wash., in 2003.
"There are lots of mom and pops out there making artichoke and pesto sauce pizza, but delivery isn't their strength," said Northrop, chief executive of the company. "And if you want a pizza in 20 to 25 minutes, you can only get that from mainstream pizza companies. And, frankly, the pizza's not that good."
In developing Garlic Jim's, Northrop took some quality and trend cues from high-flying fast-casual restaurants like Baja Fresh and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Their menus all center on well-prepared, fresh foods served quickly and at a cost higher than their quick-service counterparts.
"The trend toward those places is an example of how people are stepping up to pay a dollar or two more because they expect and want something better to eat," he said. "We knew that if we could make a much better pizza than our competition and deliver it quickly, people would pay extra for it. And so far, we're right."
"We know not everyone will pay that much for our pizza, but we also know we can't be in every market in town," he said. "We're not trying to be everything to everybody everywhere. We're not like Domino's in that way."
But in other ways it is. Northrop and two members of his management team are former Domino's operators and/or executives. Garlic Jim's kitchen layout, he said, is based on Domino's for one reason: speed of production.
A look all its own
In founding Garlic Jim's, Northrop assembled a team of pizza and fast-food franchising veterans who shared his vision. From the start, the group envisioned the company becoming a national entity. Products, store identity, marketing, commissaries and franchising structure were developed with a nod toward rapid growth and multiple territories.
In January 2004, they bought an independent pizzeria in Bellevue, Wash., shut it down, made it their test kitchen and later reopened it as the first Garlic Jim's.
A few months later they opened a second unit, which Northrop called the model store for the rest of the chain. "We put in the copper and wood trim in the lobby ... think Starbucks but in a carryout and delivery store," Northrop said. "We wanted to convey our 'gourmet right away' image in that store. We didn't want it to be a five- or six-store chain with a bunch of one-off units."
Franchised units soon spread south to Oregon, where Eric Peterson and Terry Hardy opened their first in 2005. Selling Peterson on the concept was easy, he said, because he's Garlic Jim's ideal customer.
"I was tired
And quickly, too. From the time a lease agreement is signed, Garlic Jim's sets a nine-week deadline to opening. Pre-approved and pre-trained contractors have six weeks to get the facility ready under the watchful eye of Garlic Jim's management. Northrop said that frees the operator to focus on marketing, hiring and training.
Instead of soft openings, the company conducts an extensive three-week sampling program. For example, Peterson gave out free product in front of his store and at events attended by customers in Garlic Jim's target demographic: middle- to higher-income families.
"One time we took a dry-erase board, wrote 'Free Pizza' on it and sent a couple the employees out to the sidewalk to hold it," he said. "Before we knew it, the parking lot was packed. We weren't open yet, but people were able to associate a taste with the store. It created a buzz right up to the opening."
Reinforcing Garlic Jim's premium image is its people. Northrop said the company insists on hiring only service-minded clean-cut employees. Despite the complaints of many in the industry who say such help is impossible to find, Garlic Jim's is getting them. Northrop attributes some of that fortune to his stores' location in better neighborhoods, and to the chain's higher check averages, which yield better tips. Peterson said many of his employees come from the church he attends.
"We found a lot of great kids in our youth group, kids whose parents I have a relationship with," said Peterson, a former manager at a Nordstrom's store. "When we first started interviewing, we never had an issue of not having enough people. We've been able to be selective, and I think part of that is because of the standard we set."
Nationwide aroma of Garlic
Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza
"I'd say we'll have at least that many by then," said Volm, "Between Northern California and Oregon, we'll have 100 units by 2013. And I know they've already sold territories in New Jersey, Dallas and Atlanta: big cities with a lot of potential. As busy as we are now, I know we're going to get there."
Northrop said the lack of reliable gourmet pizza delivery in the U.S. will help carry the concept across the nation, while Peterson said exceptional service will be the ticket.
"With pizza delivery, customers' expectations are so low to begin with because they're used to getting a pizza an hour after they order it," he said. "So when you show up in less than 30 minutes, they're floored. And they appreciate the service to the point it justifies the additional dollars."
David Gollersrud, the chain's vice president of development, doesn't doubt Garlic Jim's customer appeal, but he said convincing landlords not to view it as "just another pizza chain" is crucial to successful expansion.
"We have to educate the landlords about who we are and what we do and why we're different," he said. "When a landlord takes the time to go into a store and eat our pizzas, that's when they identify with our concept and become much more agreeable to have us in their shopping center. Building brand recognition and separating ourselves from other concepts out there is what we have to do."