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By NAPICS Staff
Pizza operator Ron Erich doesn't gamble, but this past February, a $100 play netted him a $6,500 return when he took first prize in the Traditional Category of the 2011 Pizza Pizzazz competition.
Held in Columbus, Ohio, in conjunction with the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show (NAPICS), the competition drew pizza makers from around the country, leaving Erich, the owner of Warrior Drive-In & Pizza, a bit surprised to have won.
"When you look around and see who we're competing against, you know it won't be easy," Erich said moments after he received his winner's check for his Lasagna Pizza. "There's a lot of pride in thinking our little shop from Ontario, Ohio, could beat some really good pizzas."
Despite its name, the Lasagna Pizza is a noodle-free assembly of Italian spiced beef, spicy Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella and ricotta. Before the contest, Warrior sold about 20 Lasagna Pizzas per week. But after word of its victory spread throughout area's 12,000 residents, sales soared to 90 a week.
Overall, Warrior's business spiked 35 percent, a high point that kept the staff scrambling for months until diminishing gradually throughout the year. The lasting effect of the Lasagna Pizza's win, Erich added, is a rise in sales of his whole gourmet line of pies.
"It's encouraged them to try other specialty pizzas, which wasn't something I expected," said Erich. "That's encouraged me to create another specialty pizza that I want to enter in the next contest."
Erich admitted that his prize-winning pie took some work to perfect. Over the course of a year, he changed his assembly from using multiple layers of dough to a single layer.
"It was a production nightmare; just too much labor. And once we eliminated those extra layers of dough, we saw we didn't lose anything in the taste, it was easier to make, and the appearance was nicer," he said.
Spreading the word
Using press releases and photographs provided by NAPICS, Erich generated publicity through local newspapers, radio and television stations. He also rented billboard space proclaiming his win, and got a large banner for the store.
"You do have to make the effort to promote your business, even with something like this," Erich said. "But it's really not much different from what we already do."
With the $6,500 prize money, Erich took his wife on an Alaskan cruise, the couple's first vacation in eight years. He also gave his crew a break, closing the pizzeria while away to allow some renovation — a bit of which was paid for by the prize.
"Our customers said they missed us while we were gone because they had to go someplace else to get their pizza," he said. "It's funny, but we like hearing that because it shows they're a part of our business. They'd even taste-tested the Lasagna Pizza before we entered it in the contest. It's kind of like a family."
Erich said he's coming back to Pizza Pizzazz in 2012, but not to defend his Traditional category crown. He wants a shot at a Gourmet pizza win.
"I'm going to bring a pizza that I think has never been done before," he said. "I think I've got it pretty well figured out, but now the challenge is to come with a name for it so we can get it on the menu."
NAPICS will be held Jan. 29-30 at the Greater Columbus (Ohio) Convention Center.
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