• Who's Who: Pete Picurro

Sooner or later, every business owner leaves the grind behind and escapes to a place void of cell phones, e-mail and balance sheets.

Pete Picurro, owner of five-store Picurro Pizzeria, in Tucson, Ariz., is no exception to that rule, but he takes his getaways to an extreme.

Peter Picurro

A few times a year, he and a handful of buddies hike into the most remote wilderness: places were maps are needed to find water they share with mountain lions, coyotes and bears.

Come May Picurro's not-so-easily wearied travelers will make a "rim to rim" trek of the Grand Canyon, a 25-mile, one-day endurance test that would make the average tenderfoot tremble.

"It can be a pretty intense trip," said Bob Creager, president of A-Message-on-Hold/SD Inc., who has done three wilderness back-pack trips with Picurro, and will make this one as well. The two men met through a Tucson business association two years ago. "There aren't a lot of people who do this, so when you meet someone like Pete, somebody you can trust on these types of trips, you try to spend all the time you can with them."

Picurro heard the call of the southwestern wild after his parents moved to Tucson when he was 10. A big-city boy at heart, the Englewood, N.J. (located just across the Hudson River from New York City) native fell for Arizona's rugged, expansive terrain immediately.

"When I was in high school, I worked in the Grand Canyon for two summers," said Picurro, 41. "Being out in the wilderness, living off what's on your back ... is more real than societal because there's nothing man-made out there. I really love it."

Picurro also loves the restaurant business, a passion discovered at 15 when he started busing tables. Two years later, he became a line cook, and at 19, his brother asked him to help at his Bar Harbor, Maine, restaurant, where Pete worked through three frenetic summer seasons.

"That was a great experience, but I got pretty well burned out working four months straight," said Picurro.

At 24, he returned to Tucson where he and a partner started More Than Pizza. After two years there, he sold his interest to make an abrupt career change. Planning to start another pizza company on his own, Picurro first wanted to learn how to market well. Educating Peter, as it were, included a job at a direct mail company, where he studied how hundreds of other companies advertised themselves.

By 1992, Picurro, who never earned a college degree, had scraped together $25,000 to launch his second business, Picurro Pizzeria. During its first six months, he thought he'd returned to the hell of Bar Harbor summer seasons.

"I worked open to close every day for that whole time," he said. "But we had very professional-looking marketing materials and advertisements, and that made us look like a big company, not just some start up, which we were, of course."

The Difference a Decade Makes

Ten years hence, Picurro Pizzeria includes one corporate store and four franchised outlets. Except for one dine-in unit, all are delivery-carryout units.

Combined annual sales for the company are about $3 million, coming mostly from sales of what Picurro calls "sort of a gourmet, New York-style" pizza. The company also sells calzones ("Our sales of those have gone up a lot since Pizza Hut came out with the P'Zone," he said), salads and other appetizers. Average check is $18, a solid $5 above checks at some large chains.

Picurro believes his per-store sales average could exceed the current $600,000, but he won't discount products just to drive volume to achieve that.

Sell on wheels: Picurro Pizzeria's hybrid delivery car.

"There's no point in doing $1 million in sales, but not making a profit," said Picurro. "And our customers already pay extra for our product because they like what we have. It's different from what they get elsewhere."

Ed Dunin-Wasowicz, president of D-W/McGarrity, Inc., has handled Picurro's advertising since it opened. He said the pizza company's dedication to unique and fresh ingredients have helped build repeat-customer business.

"Attention to detail is a big part of the quality standard Pete sets," said Dunin-Wasowicz. "It think it was David Ogilvy of Ogilvy-Mathers, who said, 'You can sell a bad product only once,' and that's something Pete seems to know (intuitively)."

Dunin-Wasowicz said Picurro also understands the need for unique marketing strategies, and that he's willing to take the chance to have fun with customers.

"When they deliver to apartment buildings, for instance, the drivers put a Post-It-type note on the doors to the left and to the right of the apartment they're going to. And it says, 'The only thing cooking at your neighbors' tonight is a good time from Picurro Pizzeria,' " said Dunin-Wasowicz. "That says we're fun -- and that you've got to go cook dinner. It's unassuming and friendly, not obnoxious."

Picurro also turned a Honda Insight gas/electric hybrid car into a rolling advertisement last year. The car sports the company's logo, phone number and Web address, and a graphic salad of vinyl vegetables.

Picurro's motive to buy the car was three-fold: its use as an advertisement; a sign of his commitment to the environment; and as a means of ensuring his drivers had a reliable, presentable vehicle each shift.

"In our business, a driver will only last as long as his car lasts," said Picurro. He said it costs his business about $15 a day -- one transaction -- to provide the car. "Sure, that's a cost to me, but it also gives me a good feeling to know that I've got a nice vehicle out there with my company's name on it. I think it's more than worth it."

Fun, Trust and Generosity

Picurro's short-term growth plan for his company is to add 10 more stores over the next three years. Achieving that, he said, includes finding the right franchisees and a lot of good training to avoid spreading himself too thin.

Belinda Burnette, Picurro's vice president of franchise operations, said her boss works to empower each employee by giving them the authority to handle customer complaints from day one. Each new hire also is required to read the humorous and helpful book, Positively Outrageous Service, by T. Scott Gross.

"It's sort of a philosophy that we try to teach them, that they work for a special company," said Burnette. "We show them how important it is to greet customers, to make everyone welcome who comes in."

Pete Picurro

Age: 41
Company: Picurro Pizzeria
Position: founder, owner
HQ: Tucson, Ariz.
Stores: five, one dine-in, four delco
Sales: $3 million (approx.)
Residence: Tucson
Hometown: Englewood, N.J.
Wife: Terry
Children: Elizabeth, 12; Samantha, 6
Hobby: wilderness hiking

"We try to show them that it's the intangible things that bring customers back sometimes," Picurro added. "The Insight, how we offer free soda to waiting customers, smiling at everyone who walks in ... that all goes beyond just making good pizza."

Creager said it makes for good friendships, too, adding that Picurro lives what he preaches.

"Pete does a fair amount of photography on our (wilderness) trips, and he'd taken a shot of me when we were hiking in Utah," Creager began. "And then five weeks after we got back from the trip, he has this beautifully framed shot of a silhouette of me. I never asked for it, never even knew he took it, but he wanted to give that to me. That's the type of person he is: spontaneously generous."

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