Loyalty Keeps the Dough Rising at Pizzerias

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Every street corner in the Mahoning Valley, it seems, has a pizzeria or at the very least a restaurant, bar or small store that sells its version of pizza.

And despite the market saturation, many places that offer pizza have maintained, if not increased, their customer base. Even in suburbs such as Austintown and Boardman, where pizzerias can’t be avoided, whether independents or parts of national chains, long-established stores are seeing increased sales without taking away customers from their competitors.

“It’s tough competition. You get your loyal customers, but this market really is pizza-eating people,” says Steve Cocca, owner of Cocca’s Pizza. “They’re not just going to get my pizza. They may be going to two places a week.”

Customer loyalty still plays an important role at many shops. Anthony Pellegrini, owner of Wedgewood Pizza in Boardman, recognizes many of his customers as soon as they walk in the door. That’s because they’ve have bought pizza every Friday since the store opened two decades ago.

“We’re on a first-name basis with a lot of our customers,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t even have to say their name when they come in,” he says. “We can turn around and start making it. If you treat people like that and offer them a good product, you can’t fail in business.”

John Stefan, owner of Inner Circle Pizza in Austintown, says he has customers he knows by voice when they call in an order.

“You see both, but we have a lot of regular customers. And I mean a lot. You can come in and see some of the same people every Friday,” Stefan says. “That’s a good thing but it can also be a bad thing because you want to see new customers as well.”

The huge demand for pizza results, at least in part, from the immigrants who settled in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and brought their Old World recipes, even if they weren’t for pizza.

“There’s haluski, pierogi, wedding soup and cookie tables. When you leave this area, you don’t find that anywhere else,” Pellegrini says. “It’s an ethnic community and a tight-knit community because of it. That’s why they support the local pizzas.”

At Cocca’s – which has six restaurants in Mahoning and Trumbull counties – sales have been rising about seven years, albeit at varying rates.

“If we compare sales year-to-year, we have some stores up 20% and some up 8%, but we’re generally up across the board,” Cocca says, noting that his stores in Mahoning County have seen more growth.

Growth became stagnant about a year-and-a-half ago, Pellegrini reports, after enjoying steady gains since the store opened.

“We weren’t losing anything, but we weren’t going anywhere like we had been,” he says.

“We made some changes like adding beer and wine sales, wings, and some live music once or twice a month. That’s really helped business.”

This year, the country’s 33,000-plus independent pizzerias will bring in a projected $19 billion in revenues, according to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators with $575,000 in sales per restaurant.

The success local pizzerias enjoy has spilled over into other Italian restaurants. Cassese’s MVR in Smoky Hollow didn’t add pizza to its menu until four years ago, a decision not taken lightly, according to Joe Cassese.

“We’re all spoiled. … People in the Mahoning Valley know, without question, that some of the best homemade pizza is made in the Valley,” he says.

“We wanted to introduce the item the right way. Our concern was being able to adapt and continue serving the favorites, while having the pizza come out at the same time.”

Cassese didn’t want the MVR to become a place that just sold carryout pizza, he says. Rather, he wanted the pizza to complement other items on the menu.

“We knew that we had to bring out a competitive product that people enjoy with our other dishes,” Cassese says. “You may have a family come in, look at the menu and decide they want pizza. That’s just as great as ordering pasta.”

None of the four pizza shops interviewed could say how many pizzas they’ve sold this year, the reason being that orders are all combined. An order of three pizzas comes through the same as an order of chicken wings and breadsticks.

“You think that it’s thousands because you make so many, but I couldn’t honestly say how many pizzas we pump out of even one store in a year, Cocca says. “But it’s a very high number.” Owners of the other pizzerias say much the same.

When it comes to profits, side dishes – such as salads, wings or breadsticks – play an important role.

For Stefan at the Austintown Inner Circle, chicken wings account for 40% of sales. That level of sales, carried over from the now-closed Inner Circle in Liberty, which he also owned, helped his restaurant become established in Austintown, which had long-established restaurants such as the original Wedgewood Pizza.

“It may be that because there were so many pizza places already established, offering multiple products helped us get our foot in the door and hold on over the years,” Stefan says. “I’ve focused more on wings whereas other places treat it like a secondary item.”

Much as the addition of pizza at MVR, they use short-order items to complement their existing menus, the pizzeria owners say.

“Naturally, pizza and wings go together. They’re party items that people like,” says Pellegrini. “If someone comes in and buys a pizza for $10, they might decide to get wings for another $10. Instead of walking out the door with just a pizza, they walk out the door with both.”

Cocca notes that side items are a way to ensure that everyone in a group, say at an office or a party, gets what they want. If a customer has a gluten-free diet or is a vegetarian he’ll get a salad, he says, and won’t be left out.

Also on the rise are specialty pizzas, those seemingly offbeat ideas such a taco pizza or Philly cheesesteak pizza.

In its 2012 Pizza Consumer Trend Report, Technomic, a food industry research group, reported that 33% of those surveyed said they would gladly pay more for “highly innovative toppings.”

Cocca says Buffalo chicken pizzas at his store in Boardman are “flying through the door,” and specialty pizzas are a barometer of the economy.

“They cost a bit more, so when the economy is doing well like it is now, you see an increase in those sales,” Cocca explains. “When the economy was down, you see a lot more traditional cheese and pepperoni pizzas.”

But expanding the menu isn’t for everyone. Wedgewood Pizza doesn’t specifically offer many specialty pizzas, but does include toppings that let customers make their own.

“There are a lot of things going in the pizza business, from artisan pizzas to 90-second pizzas,” Pellegrini says. “It’s a hot item but we decide to stick with what we’ve done because [Wedgewood] has been in business for 50 years. We’ve built business on this style and it’s what we’ll stick with.”

And sticking with what they know appears to be working well for all Mahoning Valley pizzerias, whether old family recipes or knowing customers by voice, despite national chains encroaching on their territories.

“I’m a fourth-generation Cassese in this business,” Cassese explains. “So our recipes go back four generations and a lot of our local pizza recipes do the same. When you have something like that happening so much in an area like this, it’s hard for a chain to keep up.”

Pictured: Cocca’s Pizza has six pizzerias in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, says owner Steve Cocca, and have all seen sales increase annually for seven years.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.