Hitting Walls or Ceilings with Growth
From routine seasonal slumps to a global pandemic, there are many reasons for restaurant sales to flatten or decrease occasionally. Whether it’s due to the initial excitement of a grand opening wearing off, or people simply ordering less pizza than they once did, there are times when revenues decrease. Pizzeria owners say they have strategies for increasing sales during temporary slumps, and they also work to prevent hitting these walls or ceilings of growth.
In general, the COVID-19 crisis inspired restaurant operators to improve their delivery processes, build takeout operations and boost to-go sales. In later months, as protocols changed, restaurants had to come up with new ways to maintain or increase sales.
Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap, which opened in Alexandria, Virginia in 2015, shifted to takeout sales and stayed open during the initial pandemic shutdowns. When outdoor dining resumed, the team installed a tent on top of the nearby parking structure and opened Lena’s Oasis, a pop-up tropical venue. There is also a dog-friendly Lena’s Beer Garden, a small outdoor space.
Later, when restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining spaces, Lena’s had to adapt again. People had eaten pizza throughout the pandemic, says operations director Donna Shore, so when competing restaurants reopened, customers flocked to those other cuisines. “We kept seeing these dips in our sales,” she says. “We had to think on our feet.”
The restaurant took over the second floor of its space and opened The Loft at Lena’s. The room changes décor every few months to offer customers a different immersive experience. Over the winter the space had a ski lodge theme, and in spring there were flowers and swings for Instagram posts. “The camera eats first,” Shore says. The social media exposure helped the neighborhood eatery gain a regional following.
Today the pop-up is closed but the Loft, Beer Garden and original Pizza & Tap maintain sales momentum by offering meals and experiences. Lena’s offers wine events such as $175 classes that include a four or five course meal, history, trivia and information on how to pair wines with pizza and Italian foods. The two-and-a-half hour classes sell out quickly. “It keeps us fresh,” Shore says. “It keeps people coming in wanting a piece of the whole Lena’s experience.”
Lena’s, which is named after owner Jason Yates’ mother, also expanded its private events offerings. Lena’s added new pizzas to the menu, such as jambalaya pizza and Korean barbecue pizza, and a feta and hot honey appetizer that is heated in the pizza oven. It also has promotions such as Meatball Madness, a March event that benefits the local Boys and Girls Club. “We do try to stay ahead,” Shore says. “That’s what the pandemic taught us, you can’t stand still.”
Some sales slowdowns are more routine, such as seasonal fluctuations. Take January for example. “When you look at people’s mindsets after the holidays, people are watching their waistlines and their wallets,” says Travis Smith, vice president of marketing at Mr Gatti’s Pizza, based in Fort Worth, Texas. “For new year’s resolutions, pizza is not the first thing you think of.”
The franchise company, with more than 70 locations open, emphasizes its salad bars and cauliflower crust pizzas in marketing materials during this time of year. Also, as a restaurant in the Family Entertainment Center (FEC) category, Mr Gatti’s also focuses on its games and party offerings.
Mr Gatti’s Pizza has signed several franchise agreements that will double the number of the brand’s units. One detail the owners must prepare for is a potential lull after the grand opening sales spike. Mr Gatti’s tries to be proactive to fend off these slumps. The owners start promoting the new restaurant 60 days prior to opening, and the event includes free games and giveaways. To build local goodwill, the team drops off free pizzas at the local firehouse and supports little league teams and food banks.
“We have locations in large markets and small markets, and the thing they all have in common is connection to the community,” Smith says. “The franchise owner is hands-on.” The goal is to be ingrained in the marketplace, so that dining at Mr Gatti’s Pizza becomes part of consumers’ routines.
Owners seeking advice can call someone on Mr Gatti’s franchise advisory council or they can call Smith, who gives franchisees his cell number. “We can look to the system and the experience we have with other operators, and we are able to tap the knowledge that has been built up over decades,” Smith says of the 54-year-old brand. “We definitely have a resource in our history that we can tap and look back on what we’ve done in a similar time.”
It helps to have sales figures available so that owners can respond quickly. The three-location Taglio Bar + Pizzeria and one-location A Tavola in Cincinnati, Ohio completes several weekly and monthly reports and audits to analyze sales, costs and purchases. “We have regular weekly meetings with our teams at each location,” says Jake Goodwin, chief operating officer and co-owner. “We spend that time focused on building sales, systems, our teams, training and all costs and purchases reports and audits.” Also, meetings with the accountant were increased from monthly to weekly.
The group, which opened the third location of Taglio in June last year, tries to be proactive in maintaining sales. “As with all of our locations we have to become a part of our community and neighborhood,” Goodwin says. The restaurants joined the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and volunteered for community events. They also teamed up with a real estate management company to provide open house and move in baskets for all tenants. Taglio/A Tavola created a calendar and systems to send out menus and delivery postcards to reach new customers, invested in new software for social media management and guest e-mails, and integrated new point of sale features including text marketing and an updated online ordering layout.
Maintaining focus is important. “We focused in on consistent service and food quality,” Goodwin says. “These two pillars are what Taglio is founded on and is what will continue to drive sales.”
NORA CALEY is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.