*Guillermo Estrada is Pizza Patron's new president.
Antonio Swad is a restaurant-industry veteran who earned his prowess from the school of hard knocks. The 50-something entrepreneur started his career as a dish washer at age 15 and worked his way up from there. He founded the highly successful Pizza Patron 23 years ago and has not looked back since -- except to see how it can propel him forward.
If Swad is the innovator, Guillermo Estrada is the daily executor of his boss' plans. Thirty-something Estrada, a native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, originally came to Swad in 2005 like "a baby on a doorstep," after he had relocated to America with his job at Tyson Foods.
Unlike Swad, who has no formal education, Estrada was weaned professionally on the corporate ladder at Tyson, and holds a master's degree from the University of Texas. Last week, he was named president of Pizza Patron.
Swad said Estrada has been well-groomed for the position and the two work well together because of their differences.
"It's important to know what you know, but more important to know what you don't know," Swad said. "And Guillermo fills in most of what I don't know."
Now the two share an office and the decisions that seek to build the brand to a projected 750 stores in the next decade. That includes into more diverse Latino markets.
PizzaMarketplace.com asked Estrada about his business style, plans for the future and just how you grow a niche market in a tempestuous economy. His answers: Know your market. Trust your immersed franchisees. Take cues from your company's name.
How do you and Antonio Swad conduct business differently? Why do you think you were tapped for your new post?
Antonio has that entrepreneur spirit. He's a leader, while I'm more a corporate individual. So we're combining that spirit that drives a company forward with the structure that is needed to have well-defined growth. We want to become the premier Latino brand in the restaurant and pizza business.
What I've been doing for the past four years is being part of a team; making decisions that are good for customers; and closing deals for company [expansion], especially in Miami, and some tough stores we just signed. [There are currently 92 Pizza Patron stores, 14 in construction and several more in the pipeline, according to Estrada.]
I have that Latino experience, share the same values, same vision; I'm a Mexican myself. I know the market, and have been in international business as well for many years.
What are Latinos looking for as consumers?
You have to start with the different levels of heritage: There are first, second and third generations. You have Latinos from Mexico, Latinos from South America, Latinos within Central America -- they have different tastes, accents, ways of approaching and saying things. So you have to be careful how you reach them. Our name appeals throughout Latin America, but we are open to regionalizing different tastes and flavors according to the preferences of each region.
We're getting into Miami with a very important group from Columbia. And those guys have lived in Miami for many years and have a knowledge of the market, so we're relying on their feedback.
We have stores in Texas, California, Colorado, Nevada, and there are a lot of Mexicans in those regions. But as we grow, you're going to see maybe more Cuban [taste profiles] in Miami and Pureto Rican ones in the Northeast. We're ready to learn from the franchisee what is needed, what kind of tweaks in flavor to provide.
How do the franchisees give you feedback that allows you to tweak your formula?
Our franchisees are very hands-on in their operations. We're looking for people who will be part of the community and operation. Those franchisees in Miami, they're in the community and attend different local events, getting feedback in the market. That connection with community is keeping us apart from everyone else.
That's what a patron will do: good things for his people. The definition of "patron" is "benevolent leader of the community," so we want to be behind that, provide quality and service. Be there at every single event, every school activity and church activity, within [the confines of] the business. Our franchisees believe that. Those little events [that most businesses wouldn't attend] -- Pizza Patron is right there. And we have open communication with franchisees on a daily basis by e-mail, by phone, by corporate visits; we're in every single market at least four times a year.
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Are you looking to ramp up your social media presence?
We're looking to different avenues to promote the brand. You can't deny that social networks are placing an important role on not just person-to-person communication, but also with companies [talking to] their customers. I think a company that wants to involve people needs to embrace those challenges to serve.
We're going to use social networks to get closer to the customer. We want to make sure that's done properly. We're working on that as we speak, so you'll see Pizza Patron in different venues of social networking in the coming weeks. We know the Latino or Hispanic demographic uses this to express themselves and to learn more about companies.
What's ahead for Pizza Patron? Any new flavors or initiatives?
We're looking at different limited time offers; that's the first step in order to have a successful product. [We're] offering new pizzas next year that way â€¦ and if we have a successful product with different ingredients, we'll take that into consideration. We have a simple menu. The LTOs allow us to offer something new and fresh, and if the communities accept those we're happy to take a look at them.
[Flavors] continue to be Latino profiles, combining some unique ingredients that you see south of the border -- cilantro based and lime based, for example. They're very successful down in Mexico and Latin America.
You have continued to do well despite the economic downturn, growing to more than 90 stories from a bit over 20 when you joined. What's the secret to prospering in times like these?
We have a specific niche, and we're focused on what we do. We continue making pizzas, that's what we know and continue to do. We're going back to training on operations, customer service, also back to review the business model itself, and looking at prices over several weeks or months. Everything's going back to basics.
* Additional reporting by Richard Slawsky