Thursday, October 29, 2015

If Lovin' You (Pizza) is Wrong -- I Don't Want to be Right

So a new University of Michigan study finds that some people can get addicted to pizza.  Knock me over with a pepperoni! I don’t have to go to Ann Arbor to find that out. A quick trip to my local Pizza Hut for the lunchtime buffet proves that little data point beyond empirical challenge. With apologies to Wolverines everywhere and Michigan native Mitt Romney (and yes, I know you’re still hurting over that ridiculous botched punt loss to Michigan State), “No Mitt, Sherlock!”

Cripes, you can become addicted to anything. I make high-pitched purring noises when I put socks on that are hot and fresh out of the dryer. I tell guests that I can’t think without the ambient sound of the machine tumbling endlessly in the background. I will only drink Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, served over one of those perfectly spherical ice balls, and it ain’t cheap! The bourbon, I mean. Those frozen ball molds are pretty inexpensive, thank goodness. You may remember a spit-up-funny comedy riff from a certain Mike Myers movie when he invokes that lyrical Scottish brogue of his to proclaim a worldwide plot to addict the planet to the Colonel’s chicken. Well substitute Popeyes, and he’s onto something.

Here’s the thing. Food that tastes really good makes you want to eat a lot of it. Can I get a drolly delivered “Duh.” Anything that tastes good, or feels good, or looks good, or smells good motivates you to want to experience it over and over again.  But most of us don’t because we’d get beat up by that beautiful girl’s boyfriend for staring like a Doberman at a drumstick.  We don’t because then we’d have to reciprocate and dislocate our thumbs giving our spouse an ACTUAL 30-minute back rub. We summon the willpower and resist because otherwise the police come and unlock our frozen lips from the ice cream fountain at the Golden Corral. Most of us don’t eat a whole, large Meat Lover’s with hot dog-stuffed crust pizza in one sitting because we don’t want to be charged for two seats on our next flight to Columbus.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned in one year on the PMQ pizza beat.  As this audience already knows, but I hope enjoys hearing restated in the face of constant academic watchdog butt bites, pizza can be healthy food! It can be made with high-quality grain, non sugar-spiked dough, fresh, low-fat proteins and vegetables, and tomato sauce, which we all know is healthier than penicillin. There is some scientific evidence to suggest a human adult once verbally declined a second slice of the popular substance.

In fact, a 2015 study that predated the silly Michigan nutritionally correct screed identified the typical pizza lover as a “woman in her 30s who exercises twice a week.” Now that’s some research worth its weight in PhDs. Fit ladies in their sexual prime love nothing better than to munch on a steamy slice of hot pizza while they pump the Elliptical. Well, maybe that’s a bit of a fantasy—but not as big a one as the pipe dream that pizzeria owners are the equivalent of street pushers hawking cheesy, heroin-injected dough.

Can we all agree—just say “no” to the nutrition police puritans … and “yes” to our fetching, hard-body soul mates when they ask for that last slice of thin-crust veggie. Just don’t promise any back rubs.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Whole Lotta Pizza Love for Millennials, Your Pie Top Guy

That’s right. Those 18-34-year-old iPhone-jabbing control freaks are the demanding demographic  driving the restaurant business to change from its traditional come-to-us strategy to a new go-to-them reality. Look, I’m 58 and I remember when I thought anyone over 40 was ancient and spent. They didn’t even get that Led Zeppelin invented hard rock and are empirically incomprehensible at less than 11 on your Kenwood volume knob—right on Spinal Tap! Now I find the kids—anyone under 40—interminably annoying with their Tweeting and Snapchatting and that no-talent Kardashian chick. Except, sometimes you meet really young, talented entrepreneurs who are not only cool, but are spearheading consumer transformation in this country. Some of them even appreciate old-school quality. 

Meet Drew French, Your Pie founder and owner of five pizzerias in the 24-store pioneer fast-casual chain that most recently opened a franchise in Chicago. French stole the show, winning the 2015 Pizzaiolo Ultisimo (Ultimate Pizza Makers Challenge) at The Sofo Foods Expo in Atlanta Oct. 4. The experience was just peachy for the Athens, Georgia-based pizza innovator who crafted a Georgia Peach and Prosciutto Pie that judges voted No.1 after shaking off their doubts. “Peaches,” y'all. Really?"

French’s fruit brainstorm earned him a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team.  “I had to leave the event early, but when I got the call that I had won I was very excited and proud to represent Your Pie, where ‘Food First’ is our mentality,” French says. “My wife is originally from the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples, Italy, so the peach-topped pizza was my attempt to blend two cultures in a taste profile that really comes together.”

A respect for Italian pizza tradition while embracing regionally sourced ingredients, tossed with a deep commitment to customer autonomy. That’s the formula that has fueled Your Pie’s ride to six-state success.  “We invented the fast-casual concept in 2008, which predated our competitors by about four years,” French says without a hint of arrogance. “We make our 10-inch personal pizzas in front of our customers in a brick oven using their choice of 8 sauces, 40 toppings and 8 cheeses. We pair our pizzas with craft beer and wine and also serve great salads and paninis.  We take pride in working hard to make the best pizza in the world—Italian in inspiration, blended with fresh, home-grown American ingredients.”

French shared his story during a phone conversation while he drove down the Georgia interstate with the giggles of his little daughter intermittently interrupting our pizza chat. It was cool to know that this young, trend-setting pizza impresario was leading dynamic industry evolution while taking care of family business. OK, Millennials can be really awesome, I guess. Heck, I’m the father of five of them myself. Takes a Whole Lotta Love. I wonder if the Your Pie guy has a favorite Zeppelin tune.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Giant Inflatable Pizza Meets the Wired Up Crew

One of the great perks of my job as associate editor with PMQ is going to food shows. From Oct. 3-4 our crew was in Atlanta for the Sofo Foods event at Cobb Galleria Center. As everyone in the pizza business knows, The Toledo, Ohio-based Sofo family runs an Italian food distribution business that is tops in quality and employee morale. Speaking of upbeat sales energy, a major highlight of the show was the PMQ-sponsored Wired Up, Fired Up Online Ordering Fair that featured presentations by five of the top companies in the online ordering universe.

Proud-to-be-called tech geeks from Chow Now, EZ Dine, PDQ Signature Systems, ArrowPOS and Microworks showed up. They informed and persuaded restaurateurs—including some curious pizzeria operators attracted, no doubt, to their corner of the Cobb Center by PMQ’s 20-foot-high giant inflatable pizza—that implementing online ordering is a no-brainer. Oh, the brains who came up with the technology that is revolutionizing pizzeria marketing are as big as they come. The guys and gals I talked to representing PMQ’s wired-up partners in Hotlanta throw around terms like cross-platform, bandwidth and cybersecurity with the same confident precision that U.S. Pizza Team members spin dough behind their backs and between their legs.

But the systems they showed off at the Sofo show were elegant in their simplicity. Most importantly, they work. The software effectively captures sales and highlights menu options to food consumers on the go. If millennials—those iPhone-wielding 18-34-year-olds—hold the keys to pizza delivery success,online ordering integrated with POS, website and social media buttons, is the only ride in the lot that remotely turns them on. The fact is, says restaurant demographic experts who I met at the NRA’s Chicago food fest in May, millennial control junkies increasingly demand you bring your specials and gluten-free options to them if you want their business. And they’re carrying around a chunk of change, by the way.

My new tech buds in Atlanta told me that even pizzerias that don’t specialize in delivery can benefit from online ordering synched up with a thoughtfully designed web site and engaging Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. And no, you don’t have to be a big chain to afford the latest technology, they say. Of course they say that. “They want to sell us their products,” I hear some of you shouting back. Look, as I’ve conceded in this blog, I’m a pizza industry novice, just trying to tell some amusing stories. So don’t take my word for it when it comes to how you market your pizzeria, or spend your hard-earned cash.

But in my research for November’s PMQ Pizza Magazine cover story, I did come across independent, one-location pizzerias, like Slice of the 80s in Detroit, who are thriving with customized online ordering systems that target their market and business model sweet spots. And I found objective sources, like the Wall Street Journal, who say there’s no sugar-coating the truth. Independent pizzerias are being stomped in many markets by Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut stores who benefit from the pizza giants’ online footprint. The big toe on that foot? Digital ordering.

So none of that may be very amusing, but I think it’s convincing. Might as well end this by beating a metaphor to death. Hope you find these photographs of the 30-foot (I know I said 20-foot before, but it was HUGE) gigantic, monster PMQ pizza amusing. No one was crushed but it took four of us to keep it from rolling away while we blew it up.