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  • Who's Who: Randy Blair

When it comes to marketing, Randy Blair will try just about anything: two-for ones; accepting competitors' coupons; birthday deals (including an "Almost My Birthday" deal); even a Tuesday night special that sees pizza prices rise by a dollar with each passing hour.

As the owner of Pizza & Pipes in Santa Clara, Calif., Blair has become a self-taught marketing maven since buying the store in 1999. Be it through attending marketing seminars, reading books on the subject or trying out any what-the-heck idea that leaps to mind, Blair will give it a go if he thinks it'll drive sales.

Randy Blair, right, fly-fishes regularly with his father, Wes.

"I'd like to do this one time," said Blair, 46, preparing his listener for a wild proposal. "Get a bunch of those rainbow clown-hair wigs and pass them out in the restaurant. Anyone who puts one on and eats with it on for the whole meal gets his food for free.

"I don't know if it would work, but it'll definitely get attention."

Some, like Fred Ganji, wonder if Blair's prodigious promotional push isn't too much of a good thing. As the immediate past-president of Redwood City's Downtown Business Association (RCDBA) and owner of Mayers Jewelers, Ganji admires Blair's enthusiasm for marketing, even if it's not exactly his style.

"It is almost confusing in a way, because every day it seems he has a different promotion," said Ganji. "But that's just Randy, and it seems to be working for him."

Blair's bottom-line numbers back Ganji's suspicion. In 2001, sales were $550,000; this year he's on course to do $600,000. Not only is that a gain of 9 percent, Blair points out that a local newspaper recently reported that restaurant sales in his area, located in layoff-laden Silicon Valley, are down 20 percent.

"We're minutes away from Intel and Yahoo, so we're in the thick of that," Blair said. "A lot of people are saying, 'Oh, high-tech went to hell, and now we're dead.' But that's not happened to us."

Blair believes it hasn't because he's focused his marketing on attracting large, steady clients, such as business offices and schools. During the school year, he sells to 13 schools in three districts, and his corporate catering business increases each year.

Not that that distracts him from his core business: families looking for a relaxing meal at an affordable price.

"We really want to be kid-friendly, too, since they drive so many of the purchasing decisions," Blair said. "Our place really has a sports theme, but it looks like a big family room ... with books and books, magazines and TVs. We have a big two-story wooden playhouse, and another separate room for video games."

The way it was

When the first Pizza & Pipes opened in 1962, a Wurlitzer pipe organ dominated the décor and added a festive ambiance to the parlor. Founder Bill Breuer's successful combination of music and munchies led him to open five more stores in California and three in Washington.

But by the 1980s, the year Blair was hired as a manager for the company, intense pizza competition and Breuer family disputes began to erode the Pizza & Pipes network. Stores closed as leases expired and owners came and went. Not only did the pipe organs begin to disappear from the chain, but organ music altogether died in 1996.

In 1999, Blair bought two stores, one in Santa Clara and another in Redwood City, a nearby suburb of San Francisco. Two years later he sold the Redwood City store in order to spend more time with his wife, Lidia, and daughters, Alexandra and Jessica.

Catherine Fraser, whom Blair met in the RCDBA, said the move to scale back operations suited him well.

"He's a good guy and he's got a good heart," said Fraser, president of Fraser Advertising. "He's a good businessman and family man."

And apparently an interesting speaker. Fraser, who teaches a marketing class at nearby Cañada College, has asked Blair to serve as a guest lecturer.

"I have a class on entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses and learn more about marketing and advertising," said Fraser. "He would come in and talk about cross-promotional marketing with other businesses. (Students) really seemed to like him."

Not that being liked is always Blair's first goal -- though by all accounts, he's very likeable. Ganji said that in RCDBA meetings -- gatherings of dozens of single-minded business owners-- Blair was never shy about sharing his opinions.

"He's the guy who'll say just what you're thinking, but wouldn't say out loud," said Ganji, laughing. "If an idea's stupid, he'll say so. He cuts to the chase."

"Delivery is the hardest part of this business, and I don't think it's worth it. And I don't ever want to get sales up at the risk of becoming a manufacturing plant."

Randy Blair
Owner, Pizza & Pipes

But perhaps Blair's candid nature breeds independence and trust in his staff. Rose Bettencourt, a Pizza & Pipes manager for three years, said Blair does let employees know where they stand, but in the right way.

"Sure, he has his moments sometimes, but he likes to joke and play around, too," said Bettencourt. "But what's really good is he pretty much let's you do what you need to do. He's not over your shoulder all the time picking at you."

Like Ganji, Bettencourt said that keeping up with the volume of Blair's marketing ideas can be confusing for employees, but she said customers like the potential of getting so many bargains in one place. And perhaps unintentionally, having to tell customers about so many different promotions drives Blair's staff to interact with guests, something he encourages them to do.

"I want them to talk to customers instead of just taking the food to the table and leaving," he said. "We have this underlying philosophy of asking ourselves how to make the customer say good things about Pizza & Pipes after they leave."

Stick with the basics

Blair admits that $600,000 in annual sales isn't an earth-shattering total in a day when strong delivery-carryout operations rack up twice that. But he believes the million dollar mark is reachable if he keeps doing what has made him successful rather than pushing delivery or changing his product.

Randy Blair

Age: 46
Company: Pizza & Pipes
Position: owner
HQ: Santa Clara, Calif..
College: CSU Chico, graduated 1991
Wife: Lidia
Children: Alexandra (8) and Jessica (4)
Hobby
: fast-pitch baseball, fly-fishing

"Delivery is the hardest part of this business, and I don't think it's worth it," said Blair, who attempts to discourage delivery orders with a $3 fee. "And I don't ever want to get sales up at the risk of becoming a manufacturing plant."

That is if he lives to see the day. Every summer, Blair plays the unnerving yet enervating game of fast-pitch baseball. At the plate, he said, it's not uncommon to face a 25-year-old who can deliver an 85 mph fastball.

"It's definitely a challenge to play in an over-18 hardball league when you're 46," said Blair, adding that his hands were still stinging from a pitch that tagged him days before. "You find out what you're made of when you can hear the ball coming by at that speed. You think to yourself, 'OK, I've got it. Now I know why those guys on TV don't swing at every pitch."

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