On Ted Turner's love of pizza, the guts to change and new pies

Oct. 2, 2003

I've never been a big fan of Ted Turner, but I've got to admit, he's a charismatic character -- and a pizza fan to boot.

During a Q&A session featuring him at the MUFSO (Multi-Unit Food Service Operators) meeting in Atlanta on Sept. 23, Turner was asked what he'd order for his last meal were he facing execution.

"I'd order pizza, and I'd eat all I wanted," he said, grinning.

You gotta love that.

For a solid hour the wily southerner entertained the standing-room-only crowd of about 1,000 with homespun tales of how the backwoods boy became a billionaire. Asked about the similarities between his TV business, Turner Broadcasting, and his bison-and-beef restaurant chain, Ted's Montana Grill, Turner applied a single maxim to both: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise."

When an audience member asked for advice on growing a restaurant company, Turner advised the gathering to avoid expanding "so fast that you can't keep your level of service up. ... It's a daunting task to grow a company as fast as some of you in this room have."

Asked what he liked most about the restaurant business, he said simply, making people happy by serving great meals. "I like happy customers. Does anyone in this room not like happy customers?"

For fun, an audience member asked why Turner invested so much in his controversial black-and-white movie colorizing business. His answer was simple: "How many

Steve Coomes, Editor

of you know somebody who owns a black and white TV?" And to those who miss monochrome flicks, he added, "Just turn the color setting to black and white and you'll be fine."

** It appears colorizing works well in the pizza business, too. Vocelli Pizza, formerly known as Pizza Outlet, recently announced it changed not only its 16-year-old brand name, but every branded aspect of its concept. (See related story Name change sends sales soaring at Vocelli Pizza.)

Why the changes? First off, cofounder, CEO and President Varol Ablak, said the 107-store company believed it would never achieve its goal of 1,000 stores by 2010 at its current growth pace.

Secondly, it listened to its advertising firm, which recommended Ablak and Co. dump the Pizza Outlet name because it screamed "Sam's Club" rather than "Super Pizza."

More than two years later, the Vocelli Pizza moniker was chosen, and then a redecorating tear began: reds, greens and earth tones replaced the chain's white-and-maroon color scheme; upscale and Italian, said Ablak, was the image he wanted.

The reimage work appears to have hit the bull's-eye. Sales in redesigned stores are off the charts, customers think there's a new pizza chain in town, and according to one franchisee, some customers say the pizza is better -- though nothing on the menu has changed.

So kudos to the gang at Vocelli Pizza for having the courage to ask tough questions and actually make the necessary changes to reinvigorate its company.

** According to a recent Memphis Business Journal report, it's unlikely that Pizza Hut and Back Yard Burgers will create more cobranded units. The Memphis-based burger chain and the pizza giant closed their two cobranded units, and no one's talking about whether Pizza Hut parent Yum! Brands will exercise the option before year's end to begin building out 500 additional units. (Eight Taco-Bell and BYB units appear to be running well.)

Additionally, BYB has struggles of its own. The cost of bison patties is up 17 percent this year, and rising insurance costs are pinching the company's profits.

Challenges aside, I suppose a guy can still hope that Yum Chairman David Novak would find a way to replace all of his company's A&W All American Food outlets (which it acquired in 2002 from Yorkshire Global along with Long John Silver's Seafood), with BYB units. A&W's core products -- burgers and fries -- are anemic, at best, compared to BYB's, and as a chain, BYB is clearly fresher and more vibrant. From my perspective, A&W's best days are behind it.

** Sales at Mama Mia's Pizza-Ria are, sadly, slipping away in the wake of the death of delivery driver Brian Wells. (See related stories Pizza delivery driver dies in bank robbery, coworker's death may be connected, Colleagues say pizza delivery driver killed in explosion was contented, reserved, Pizza delivery driver killed by bomb had police record and Possible lead in death of pizza delivery driver killed by explosive.)

Wells died on Aug. 28 following an attempt to deliver two pizzas to an address in a remote location. FBI investigators believe the delivery driver unwittingly became part of a bank robbery plan in which he was forced to wear a homemade bomb, steal the loot and deliver it to the crook(s) before a timer detonated the bomb. Wells was stopped by police, but the bomb squad did not arrived too late to remove the explosive before it went off.

It's often said that there's no bad publicity, but the grim news surrounding Wells' death -- plus the drug-overdose death of another of Mama Mia's drivers two days after Wells' -- is turning customers away, according to one of the company's drivers.

It's a shame the pizza industry has no organized body that might come to the aid of this company. But even then, I'm at a loss to suggest how it could help. It's all terribly sad.

** And speaking of help, Domino's Pizza and Papa John's are hoping some new pizzas will prop up slumping sales. (See related stories Papa John's adds Hawaiian and BBQ chicken, bacon pizzas to menu and Domino's Pizza to intro new Philly Cheese Steak pie.)

Earlier this month, Domino's launched a Philly Cheese Steak pie, while on Sept. 29, Papa John's rolled out a Barbeque Chicken & Bacon pizza and a Hawaiian Barbeque Chicken (same as the first pizza only with pineapple added).

As a customer, I like seeing the menu broadened at the pizza level, which is why I go there -- not for chicken tenders.

As an operator, I like the sensible variation on the pizza theme. Pizza's the horse that got both companies where each is today, and developing new pies is like changing the silks on the steed's back. Such changes also are efficient and easy to manage as little added inventory is required to execute them.

But mostly, as a food journalist, I like the exploratory research required by new product intros. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Topics: Commentary , Crime , Domino's Pizza , Independent Operation , Papa John's , Pizza Hut

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