“Normality is the great neurosis of civilization.”
– Tom Robbins
Owning a pizzeria in a small town is a matter of community. Your customers are neighbors, coaches, teachers, police, firemen and workers of all types. To stay in business in these small markets you must give your neighbors what they are used to. You can also introduce the creativity that will set you apart from these uninteresting but consistent corporate competitors down the street. With the Internet and creative cooking popularity on social media, customers are increasingly immersing themselves in the new culinary ingredients and trends. Luckily, your corporate pizza competitors do not do quality or creativity well. On the other hand, corporate saturation in small markets knocks out a lot of independent operators every year. Keeping your creative mojo working every day is the best leverage you have against corporate pizza, and by keeping an eye on the three I’s you will be able to dominate with culinary creativity.
Inspiration: This is what motivated you to get into this business in the first place! Inspiration lasso’s the positive energy in your mind. It can be obtained from visiting other pizzerias, trolling pizza social media and websites, viewing chef movies or cookbooks or just giving some silly thoughts room to grow in your mind. This “what if…” moment jolts you to act. Nothing is crazy in an inspired mind.
Imagination: This is your ability to take an original thought in your mind and create something that you and your customers have not experienced. Some say this is more important than knowledge because imagination embraces the entire world of your mind. Your feelings, fantasies, memories and inner experiences rush past all negativity and boundaries to a place where everything is possible.
Insight: This is truly where the rubber hits the road for any restaurateur. Insight takes all the imagination and inspiration and binds it with facts, details, history, and your reality to make a transformation of thought. I find that pizza schools, mentors, other competitors and even customers who say, “Have you ever thought about…” offer the best insight into creating the most insightful pizzas around.
Fourth Eye Blind
Insanity: Over 20 years, I have gone “all in” on some insane pizzas. I like to describe them as “Disgustalicious”, and they tend to be highly marketable (especially late at night.) I usually send them to some prestigious chefs nearby to get testimonials like, “This pizza is WRONG on every level!” And “It’s a heart attack in a box!”
Bride of Wonderboy: Based on the Jack Black song, this monster has a hot dog and mustard stuffed crust, mac and cheese sauce, mozzarella, provolone, bacon, beef, tomatoes, pickles, onions, oven-ready French fries on top and a generous squeeze of ketchup across the top after the oven bake.
Death Pickle for Cutie: This great band visited us for a festival, and we were ready. Béchamel cream, Asiago, cheddar and provolone cheeses with tons of dill pickles and topped with oven-ready French Fries and a heavy topping of ranch dressing.
The Meat Romney: This lunatic-fringe pizza dominated during the elections. TWO pounds of local sausage made into a 12-inch disc was par-cooked and frozen. When the customer called in and “voted,” by referring to this pizza as a “Meat Romney” or a “Barack Obameat.” We would then cook it with our marinara, mozzarella and topped with wall-to-wall pepperoni. We tallied the votes at the end and had a cool election.
If you strip everything down to the bare bones in a pizzeria, it all comes down to base, sauce, cheese and toppings. These elements can be manipulated in millions of ways to capture a customer’s attention. Here are a few things you can do to stand out in a small town.
The Base: A crust can be manipulated ANY WAY YOU WANT. Whole grain crusts, 00 flour, thin crusts, thick Sicilian-style crusts, Detroit-style crusts, “Grandma” crusts, Long Pizza al Metro crusts, Spanish Coca-style crusts, Calzone, Stromboli, Cheese bread, Thin Arabic Manoushe, French Pissalidiere, Knotted crusts, Crusty Garlic knots, Topping-filled dough, Brioche and Semolina all can turn customers into fanatics.
The Sauce is the Boss: Adding sauces to any pizza is both easy and can radically transform a boring pizza into a winner. Pestos, chili-spiced Sauce, cheese with cream sauce, chunky tomato sauce, sauce on top of cheese, dipping sauces, Asian-inspired sauces, Teriyaki, BBQ sauce, fruit-based sauces, mustard sauces and vegetable purees can make for fabulous pizza products.
Cheeses: Even though some cheeses may be expensive does not mean you have to use a lot. For example, a few slices of French Brie after the oven can draw sales. The taste of an aged Gouda or Asiago is masterful on a cream sauce. Gorgonzola, Blue, Stilton, Feta, Chevre, Gruyere, Monterey Jack, Kashkaval, Havarti, Halloumi, Manchego, Pecorino, Teleggio and even Vegan cheeses all add outstanding flavor value to a pie.
Toppings: Usually the first word to describe a pizza is the topping, so here is where quality counts. If you use the same toppings as your corporate competitor, you have lost the chance at beating them with quality and flavor. Local chicken, ground beef, sausage and ham set you apart from any corporate nugg. Local ranchers and butchers all have ham and bacon ends. (Butchers cannot afford the labor or danger in cutting the last pieces of bacon and ham.) They always sell these cuts cheaply. When you buy locally, you bring in whole farming families into your orbit. They will always be on your side.
Spinach Artichoke Pizza
We have had these two ingredients on our menu since opening 20 years ago. This is a very popular pizza and is sometimes described by my staff to customers as “spinach-artichoke dip on acid.” The marinated artichoke halves are both sweet, acidic and garlicy — and look beautiful on each slice. And the tomato garnish finishes off this pie well.
Get the Spinach Artichoke Pizza Recipe.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.