As the Information Age jettisons us forward and leaves the days of marketing by gut instinct far in the past, the savvy restaurateur bows to a new leader — data. Specifically, customer data and feedback. This fall, Pieology Pizzeria put that idea into brick-and-mortar form when it launched Pieology Pizzeria R&D in Aliso Viejo, California.
The location has a rotating menu that gives diners exclusive first "bites" of Pieology items under consideration, along with the chain's current menu. Then, through feedback cards on all tables and URL surveys, diners share their opinions with Pieology decision-makers.
It is — in essence — a focus group that never ends, managing to engage guests, collect pre-market data on pending flavor combos and menu items while obtaining online buzz via customers' Instagram posts. At launch, leaders of the brand said that the concept reflected their beliefs that the chain's success reflected its investment in top-notch research and development.
In an effort to learn how the concept worked and how the feedback plays a role in the chain's future direction, Pizza Marketplace sat down with Pieology founder and CEO Carl Chang shortly after the Aliso Creek Road location opened its doors.
Q: What guided you to develop Pieology Pizzeria R&D?
A: The inspiration came from a culmination of guest feedback coupled with some of mine and my leadership team's own ideas and inspiration. The idea of customization has always served as a sort of North Star for Pieology, and building on the concept of creating your own pizza at Pieology, you can now customize your entire experience at Pieology R&D.
Q: What kinds of feedback are you getting from diners?
A: Interestingly, most guests feel more comfortable here, which I think can be attributed to the slightly different nature of service, since they have a more complete menu to order from and try new flavors.
We've had a few interesting and higher-end ideas that I'd love to incorporate at some point. One that comes to mind is a squid ink crust with fresh seafood toppings. It's hard to say if and when that specific idea will be incorporated since it is so off-the-wall, but I know I would like to try to incorporate more unqiue, international flavors!
Q: How are leaders, managers and staff at Pieology responding, particularly in-store? Do they find this makes their jobs more fun?
A: Our store staff and leadership are responding wonderfully! They get to be even more creative than usual thanks to Pieology R&D's ever-evolving menu and kitchen full of possibilities. We've even tapped team members outside of the store itself or at other Pieology locations to submit ideas and recipes. In fact, they often come up with some of the most creative and best-tasting ideas since they know our brand and consumers so well.
Q: So what is the plan going forward? For instance, will you expand on this concept?
A: As far as expanding to other areas, we will need to wait for a little more time to pass before we can make a decision on that front. This restaurant is intended to be a sort of flagship location for education and innovation so that our guests can continue to have the best possible experiences at Pieology locations across the country.
Q: What are some of the challenges that you've experienced with customers feedback, especially online and how are you dealing with that?
A: One challenge has been on the operational front when it comes to simply collecting and digesting all of the feedback we've received. However, the team is constantly learning and improving on this front as well, and is continually tweaking and improving the system to make it better and more efficient every day.
Q: When can we check back for a read on the overall viability and value of this idea?
A: I think a year will be best. During that time, I hope that we've solidified operations, garnered some fresh and creative ideas, and even implemented a few at Pieology locations across the country. We have a lot of momentum behind us, and I'm excited to see just how much we can accomplish in the next 12 months.
Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.