COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In February of 2000, Don Ankron was on the edge of bankruptcy. His Belpre, Ohio, pizza business grossed a bare $4,000 in sales that month and he couldn't pay his monthly bills.
"I was at the point where I was going to have to shut the doors," said Ankron, owner of Antonio's, a pizza buffet operation. "I called Big Dave (Ostrander), and even he was a little skeptical that it could be saved."
Don Ankron, at right, credits Dave Ostrander, left, with saving his pizzeria two years go.
Ostrander, a former operator, has worked as an independent pizzeria consultant to customers of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gordon Food Service for 12 years. He suggested Ankron start afresh with a new name for his business, apply some new marketing strategies and tweak his recipes and menu.
The result? In February 2002, Antonio's grossed $23,000 in sales, and Ankron credits Ostrander and Gordon with the turnaround.
"Now we're building a new facility to move into," said Ankron. "That's going from being almost bankrupt and renting space to moving into a 4,000 square-foot facility that I own."
Linda Gutowski's story of business salvation is much like Ankron's. When she bought her first Mancino's Pizza and Grinders franchise in Traverse City, Mich., she knew nothing about pizza. Time, toil and terrible sales convinced her she needed help, which she sought from Gordon.
"I was so green I didn't know what a P&L was," said Gutowski, who now co-owns four Mancino's and two breakfast-only restaurants with her husband. "There was a total education process there, and there wasn't any leaf that Gordon didn't turn for us to help us out."
Paul Nyland, GFS's customer segment manager for pizza, helped Gutowski develop an award-winning pizza crust, new products and packaging. The level of service she's received from the GFS staff, she added, has made her a zealot and evangelist for the Midwestern distributor.
"Other distributors try to get their foot in the door, but I don't even let them in," said Gutowski. GFS's staffers "are not just my vendors, they're more than that. I've got some close friendships that have turned into personal relationships. Until there's a parting of the ways between me and Gordon Foods, I have no need to look elsewhere. I'm totally satisfied."
Its Eye on the Pie
That GFS has developed such a loyal following isn't an accident. In 1990, the company's long-range planning committee launched an in-depth study of its customer base in hopes of uncovering some emerging sales trends. What it found, said Nyland, was a lot of overlooked activity in Italian and pizza restaurants.
"Among independent restaurants, pizza and Italian were the only ones still on the upswing," said Nyland. "We then figured out that we were only doing $8 to $10 million in business with independent pizzeria operators."
That, Nyland said, screamed "business opportunity," and GFS decided to develop a pizza division. Nyland would head it up, and Ostrander, his long-time customer, would help as a consultant.
"All I do is pizza," said Nyland, who earned the nickname, "Pizza Paul," as a result. "Now we're doing about $120 million in business with independent operators and regional chains. And that doesn't even count the pizza wannabes," meaning other food outlets that want to add pizza to their menus.
Ostrander, who operated Big Dave's Pizza until 2000, said he began consulting with Gordon because he saw a need and a huge opportunity.
"It dawned on me that these people had the same problems I did ... with employees, with government, with food, with balance," said Ostrander, who lives in Oscoda, Mich. "So I started practicing medicine without a license, basically.
"What's cool, though, is that our little two-year pizza pilot program has turned into a 12-year program, and there's still no end in sight. We're obviously doing something right here."
As well as something different. Several of GFS's customers say no distributor they've worked with provides such support for pizza. Even Jeff McGuire, vice president of Bellissimo, a similar-sized, pizza-focused distributor in San Rafael, Calif., said he's impressed with GFS's service to the pizza industry.
"I knew Gordon did a considerable pizza business, but I wasn't aware they put that kind of effort into it," said McGuire. "Ninety-nine percent of what we do is pizza, but we use a network of independent distributors who service our customers. So it would be difficult to do some of the things they're doing."
Among them: a 69-page pizza recipe manual that includes advice on marketing, hiring, food costing and product selection; a gourmet pizza and pasta recipe book; test-kitchen access for recipe development; and easy access to a group of industry experts dubbed the "Pizza A-Team."
The group includes Nyland and Ostrander, who counsel and consult on pizzeria operation, plus eight representatives of pizza products (cheese, dough, sauce, boxes, etc.) who host one large collective booth at Midwestern restaurant association expos and GFS shows.
Ostrander said some A-Team members have been around since 1990, while others are relative newcomers. All, he said, are experts in their product areas, which allows customers to enjoy a one-stop-shopping experience at food shows.
John Pronick took advantage of the A-Team's service and wisdom eight months before he opened Zabros Pizza Buffet a month ago, in Saginaw, Mich.
"I hadn't bought a thing from anybody and was working with a couple of foodservice companies and brokers at the time," said Pronick. "But Paul Nyland and Gordon really out-serviced everyone. Their company, as a whole, really embraces the independent operator."
Ostrander said there literally are hundreds of operators like Pronick seeking advice every day.
"They don't want just food from us, they want a whole system that shows them how to make pizza and make it profitably," said Ostrander. He, along with Nyland, recently completed a four-videotape series titled, "Video Kitchen: The Art of Making Pizza." In it, the two men give step-by-step demonstrations on making a variety of doughs and pizzas.
Asked if Bellissimo or other pizza-focused distributors offered such beyond-the-sale assistance and materials, McQuire said he wasn't aware of any. "But I wish we did. (The pizza manual) sounds like a great tool." McGuire added that many distributors help with recipe development and marketing, but rarely as in-depth as GFS appears to.
Ostrander said providing value-added services is both smart and profitable. GFS gains more sales, customers gain more knowledge, and both keep the cycle spinning.
"Gordon believes there are no secrets, so if we know it, (customers) deserve to know it," Ostrander said. "We handle them after the sale because we want them to be successful. And that only helps us."
Paul Nyland lends some advice on a pizzeria Todd Smoke and Susie Packer are planning to open in Thorntonville, Ohio.
Some on the A-Team called the association with other team members invaluable to their success in the business. Erwin Maier, regional account executive for Kalamazoo, Mich., pizza box maker ARVCO Containers, said the exposure to other product reps broadens his knowledge about the whole industry.
"You're more involved in the entire pizza concept at these things," said Maier, referring to an April Gordon food expo in Columbus. Pointing toward the product displays of other A-Team members in GFS's pizza booth, he added, "You're cross trained in all these products. Not only am I going into a pizzeria to sell boxes, but I'm well versed in cheese as a result. We're always exchanging leads with each other, too. So it's a good, all-around education."
Mark Benvenuti, a sales rep with K.B. Pizza Crust Co. in Pittsburgh, Pa., has gotten to watch Gordon's pizza influence widen during his 10 years on the A-Team.
"It grew because so many people were getting into the pizza industry without knowing how to make it, package it or sell it," said Benvenuti, whose company makes custom dough products for the pizza industry. "I just rode on Paul's coattails, and we wound up putting a lot people into the pizza business."
Gutowski said that access to experts builds customer trust in both people and products, and that keeps her from having to check other distributors to compare deals.
"People who shop and compare think they're really wise, but I have that time to devote to my company because I know I'm getting a fair margin," she said. "The truth is that you can get the same products from another vendor ... but I have a trust factor with them that I'm comfortable with."
For years Gordon has put its sales staff through what it formally calls Advanced Pizza Training. Most who are familiar with it, however, simply call it "pizza school."
Three times a year, 10 to 12 salespersons are put through what Nyland called "a rigorous in-store course" focusing on every aspect of pizza making. A single day, he said, focuses just on tomatoes and tomato products.
"We start on Monday and we release them on Wednesday," Nyland said. "In an average year, we'll put 35 people through the course. We've been doing that for 12 years, so that's a lot of knowledge we've shared."
Gutowski hosts the pizza school at one of her Mancino's stores, and calls the opportunity an honor.
"It truly is a blessing to be asked to be involved in that," said Gutowski. "It's a way for me to host some great guys and try to say thanks for all they've done for us."