Last week, Technomic released a report on pizzerias that have stayed profitable during the recession by focusing on their niche. Pizza Patron, Little Caesar's and Pizza Fusion were among those Technomic characterized as having distinguished themselves along ethnic, value and healthy lines, respectively.
The recommendation for other pizza brands was clear: Find a way to differentiate yourself. But with so many chains "innovating" along similar lines, creativity can be challenging. Offering cooking classes is one largely unexplored way that neighborhood pizza outlets can help establish their brand as familiar, accessible and friendly.
The National Restaurant Association demonstrates why pizza executives should pursue classes to reenergize consumer interest: The benchmark association's latest annual consumer survey found that almost one-third of customers surveyed said they'd be likely to attend cooking classes offered at a full-service restaurant, with younger customers and those with children trending slightly higher.
The introduction of cooking classes has the most potential for pizza shops that have a degree of visbility in their communities. Pizza Patron, whose franchisees often attend local fundraisers and school events, are one prime example.
"Chains that do have cooking classes at the local store level may gain some benefit by positioning themselves as a neighborhood place that gets to know their customers beyond serving them in the restaurant," said Naomi Van Til, a senior report coordinator with Technomic. Van Til cautioned that any initiatives to roll out comprehensive classes should start at the local test market level.
Peter Reinhart has leveraged his place in the local culinary community to much success. Reinhart, author of definitive home pizza cookbook, "American Pie," is a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales and owner of Charlotte, N.C.'s Pie Town. Reinhart has held cooking classes as a way to "complete" the relationship with his customers, as he puts it. "If people like your product, they definitely want to learn how to (make) it," he said.
Reinhart has recognized a valuable marketing paradigm: When people make your pizza along with you, they associate that good experience with your product.
Bibby Gignilliat agrees with Reinhart's philosophy of "teach-marketing." Gignilliat owns Parties that Cook, a Bay-area cooking class company that focused, heretofore, mainly on teambuilding activities for corporations from Apple to Wal-Mart. But as these company perks started getting slashed in the souring economy, Gignilliat knew she had to think fast. So she started offering individual cooking classes on a lark. Her first round of classes for individuals, introduced on Valentine's Day, sold out. She immediately knew they were on to something. The company has added 50 new classes this year alone.
Her company employs a more inter-company collaborative, so Gignilliat says smaller chains might think about pairing up with local businesses like farmers markets or universities to help expand their customer base. Such collaboration has worked well for her company, which has paired with local cheese schools and local farmers markets.
Gignilliat says some of her most successful classes are themed, especially to a holiday.
"We did a really successful event on Mother's Day," she said. "We sold out and extended to have 52 mothers and children that came to the class. Next year we might add a Father's Day class. So we're going to do one for the holidays called Delectable Desserts."
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Standardizing the Creativity
Having worked with so many large companies in the team-building aspect of her business, Gignilliat realizes that cooking classes can appear daunting to the standardized operations of pizzeria franchisees. But there are ways around it.
"With franchises, everything is outlined for how to proceed," she said. "It's the same thing with a cooking class."
Gignilliat recommended making a master list for franchisees to follow company-wide cooking class practices. The list should include equipment needed, homogenize preliminary prep work, and offer learning tips to share with the group, such as how to peel garlic or chop an onion. Dough, she says, should usually be made ahead of time to give it time to rise.
Reinhart has revealed caveats for the restaurateur in particular to heed. One of the biggest hitches in a cooking class plan, of course, is space — where you're going to hold the event. "Just plan ahead in terms of how you're going to utilize the space, how many you realistically can fit," he said. He recommended doing classes on days your restaurant is typically closed, or only open for lunch or dinner.
Don't forget to charge for the event, at least enough to cover your costs. Customers don't take it seriously if you don't, Reinhart said.
Finally, Reinhart recommended sending attendees home with some pointers — recipes for pizza dough and sauce, and suggested toppings combinations.
Worried about losing your regulars once they learn your trade secrets? The opposite has happened for Reinhart, who said he's turned class attendees into Pie Town customers.