AJ's Place in Overton, Texas, has used just one line for phone orders since it opened 15 years ago. And even in a town of about 2,300, owner Phillip Sikes knows some of his customers get busy signals when they call.
He suspects, however, they don't too mind much.
"I think they're pretty accustomed to it," said Sikes. As to whether customers call back after hearing the dreaded beep-beep, he added, "I sure hope so."
About half of AJ's orders come through the phone, which has Sikes considering additional lines. "We're going to have to at some point, for sure."
He's not alone among pizzeria operators, though perhaps unique. While Sikes is mulling the need for line two, others are considering lines four, five and six.
"When we started in 1974, we had maybe two lines," recalled Bill Bark, a franchisee of two Happy Joe's Pizza stores in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "But when we started delivery, we increased by a couple of lines, and that never seemed to be enough."
Today Bark has six incoming lines piped into six point-of-sale terminals, and he said he still needs more. His message-on-hold machine lets phone customers "listen to a little propaganda" while waiting to order. But he said it alone can't negate adding lines and workers to answer them.
Like Sikes, Bark said his customers don't mind being put on hold briefly "as long as we ask them nicely."
"If you're walk-in breaks, you can buy ice. If your POS system goes down, you can take orders with pencil and paper. But if your phones are down, you may as well send everybody home."
If they get the chance to ask, that is. Even the most cordial person dislikes busy signals, and those can lead hungry customers to dial another shop.
According to Rick Stanbridge, founder of Fidelity Communications, a manufacturer of call and message management machines in Novi, Mich., the average customer will redial twice before calling someone else. And in a hypercompetitive market, he believes that's a risk most operators don't want to take.
"In this business, you're constantly welcoming the customer to store through your phone, and giving them a busy signal isn't the best way to do that," said Stanbridge. "If you have a true delivery-carryout store, well over 90 percent of your business comes through the phone. So why not do everything you can to allow calls to get through?"
Operators like Sikes prove that a shop can run with a minimal amount of lines. And Ken Frank, product manager for Avaya, a telephone system manufacturer in Basking Ridge, N.J., said many independent operators in his area use one to three single-line phones rather than a multi-line phone system.
Frank and Stanbridge point out, however, that while such a solution is inexpensive, it's not ideal. Both believe that even a start-up shop should have four lines for order-taking. (One of those can be used intermittently for credit card or fax transactions if necessary, Stanbridge said, because it largely remains open due to brief transaction times.)
"You have to engineer your phone system to be able to handle the busiest time of the week," Stanbridge said. "If that's Friday, then get enough lines to avoid busy signals for that night."
Without question, the invesmentt in multiple phone lines and multi-line phone systems is costly. Monthly rental rates for lines in the U.S. can cost $20 to $60 each, depending on location.
The purchase cost of a phone system able to manage four to eight lines runs about $400 per telephone, said Frank, and many delivery-carryout shops have four to six phones.
A basic two-line phone one could buy at an office supply store, Stanbridge said, runs about $100 to $200. But when an operator wants to add lines, such a phone becomes worthless. The answer, he said, is to buy an expandable phone system.
"If your pizzeria is good, you're going to grow and need more lines," Stanbridge said. "You don't replace an oven every five years, so why do that with telephone equipment?"
When should I add?
When operations do grow, when should they add lines and/or phones? Stanbridge said that decision is best dictated by the pace of business. Four lines, he said, will usually suffice in a delivery-carryout shop with about $500,000 in sales. Six lines may be necessary for a $750,000 store, and eight are a near-must for a shop churning out $1 million in annual sales.
"At that point, you're talking about a store with two double-stacked ovens and two make lines," said Stanbridge. "At that point, you've got other capacity issues to consider, such as how many pizzas you can actually push through that store."
If an operator doesn't want to jump from six to eight lines or open another store, additional phones can be added to give more workers access to the phones at any point in the store. Multi-line wireless headsets (typically $1,000 each) extend that ease of use, Frank added, and POS systems can be utilized to speed order taking.
Message-on-hold machines and call sequencers also help manage call traffic flow. By playing a brief (15 to 25 seconds) marketing message, customers hear about specials without having to ask order takers, and thus order times are reduced. Call sequencers assure that calls are answered in the order they arrived, limiting hold times.
It can take a licking
Phone systems not only must be durable, said Stanbridge, they should come with a solid warranty.
"When you've got minimum-wage people working for you, you don't need anything so complicated a manager needs to train somebody how to use it."
"Our phones are (under warranty) for two years, with the exception of getting a phone back that's in pieces," said Stanbridge. "Once we got one turned in that had been thrown through a window. There's wear and tear, and then there's mistreatment."
Pizza shop phones also should come with grease guards that protect the keypad and face from flour, corn meal and other foodstuffs.
Another way of reducing abuse, said Frank, is to buy a phone system that's easy to use. Frustration is common in any pizza shop, especially considering the age of most pizzeria employees. Under the stress of a busy rush, receivers are slammed down and push buttons get pounded.
"When you've got minimum-wage people working for you, you don't need anything so complicated a manager needs to train somebody how to use it," Frank said.
Also, before you buy, clarify who will service both the phones and the lines should either need repair. Some companies provide products and line service, while others care for only one link in the telecommunications chain.
"I don't know too many pizza shops that can afford to be without their phones," said Stanbridge. "If you're walk-in breaks, you can buy ice. If your POS system goes down, you can take orders with pencil and paper. But if your phones are down, you may as well send everybody home."