Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A Name to Forget

I’ve only been writing about pizza since last December, but this much is clear to me. America’s favorite food should be a rallying point for people all over the world—not an object of dissension. When the folks at the New York pizzeria Pizza by Certé decided it was a smashing idea to add a pie to their menu called "Pic-a-Nika," I take their word that they were thinking “summer picnic fun with an Italian accent.”

But there had to be a moment when the pie makers shared the topping list with the clever marketers at Pizza by Certé. “Yep, guarantee ya the peeps are crushing for an awesome tasty summer pie smothered in fried chicken, watermelon and sunflower seeds,” said the overenthusiastic white millennial who may or may not have been distracted by his or her ear phones busting out Miley Cyrus or even Nicki Minaj. Nobody saw the big picture? Nobody noticed their internal stereotype meter was pegging off the charts, blowing up their judgment data banks with huge RED flashing digital letters screaming, WARNING, WARNING, WARNING—Detonation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

The thing went off last week like a Twitter thermonuclear bomb and escalated rapidly into physical protests outside the store by a group associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The cross section of pizza and politics has been full-on penetrated like a drunk, clueless college kid in a careening, beat-up Subaru at 2 a.m. on Sunday.

Point is I’m willing to accept Certé manager Vincent Guzman’s claim: "When we made it we never thought that it would offend anyone. We create to feed, not to offend." But by the time he made this plea for understanding, it was far too late. Independent pizzerias around the country live and die by their social media marketing. Getting out front of menu changes, special events, customer loyalty and employee recognition can set your operation apart and forge a unique bond with your community. I’ve seen the power of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach out and touch pizza fans and drive them to their neighborhood pie palace for food, friendship and fun times.

But the same tools, in the hands of even well-meaning operators with a limited or unchallenged world view, can lay waste to dreams and years of hard work. After the protests and the media megaton fallout, Pizza by Certé management finally got something right, saying this on their Facebook page: "When we named the pizza 'Pic-a-nika' we disrespected an entire community, perpetuated a hurtful ideology and brought embarrassment to ourselves. In a time and climate when words carry so much charge, we chose beyond poorly and cannot erase or ignore the damaging effects it has caused."

Along with the outraged cries of those offended by Pizza by Certé and their gaffe of all gaffes, you’re sure to hear others decrying the state of political correctness that punishes innocent, struggling business owners. The truth is, whatever their real motivation, the brains behind the Pic-A-Nika debacle screwed the pooch in every way imaginable. The competitive restaurant playing field is unforgiving and relentless. Sound marketing combined with quality food will lead to survival. Monumentally brain-dead choices will lead inevitably to equipment auctions and grand openings for the new owners. (See PMQ’s Pizza Insider, for a primer on why opening a pizzeria might not be in your best interest).

So the charitable approach might be to give Pizza by Certé the benefit of the doubt and hope they’ve learned their lesson. One definition in the Italian dictionary of certé is “It goes without saying.” If only the rocket scientists/ pizza pitchers in New York could really read Italian instead of amusing themselves by bastardizing a perfectly good word like picnic. It goes without saying, what they did say in promoting their racially charged pie was a recipe for divisiveness and professional disaster.

Then again, social and racial justice is a long-term, sometimes hard-edged battle. A fair advocate might argue these folks have earned their Darwin Award and bid them good riddance. I will simply hope that this case study in restaurant marketing gone terribly wrong will not detract from a lesson the pizza community knows instinctively—pizza is the best food in the world to bring all kinds of people together and pizza operators have a passion for serving, not tearing down, their community.


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