Amici's East Coast Pizzeria records staggering sales.
It's 10:30 on a sunny autumn morning, and the new Amici's East Coast Pizzeria at 216 King Street in San Francisco already is in mid-day swing, despite the fact its doors won't open for business for another 30 minutes. While front-of-the-house workers clean tabletops and fill condiment holders, the kitchen staff is buzzing.
A long stretch of salads in to-go containers fade down the make line. The greens, reds, oranges and yellows of the ingredients intertwine gorgeously, leaving no doubt as to the freshness or quality of the produce. Pizzas go in and out of the brick ovens and into boxes and hot bags. The phone rings, its tinny sound audible over the kitchen clatter. An employee takes another order, entering it into the point of sale system.
A half-hour later, the doors are unlocked. It's 11 a.m., and the Amici's unit -- the seventh store for the San Mateo-based company -- has already recorded $3,000 in sales for the day... and the first dine-in customer hasn't even crossed the threshold.
"We have a lot of corporate accounts," explains Richard Allum, the company's director of purchasing and marketing. He points toward the kitchen, where a large order is being prepared for a meeting in a nearby office. "We're not open yet and we've already sold all these orders. We market heavily to business customers. We have a successful program that allows our large clients to set up accounts and we bill them on a monthly basis."
Some understandably shy away from issuing credit, and Allum readily admits Amici's has been burned by some dot-com companies that went belly up when the economy slacked four years ago, but he says the practice has paid off. "The key is to make it as easy as you can for potential customers to place an order with you," he says. "If you can establish a relationship with a corporate client, then that means they're less likely to order from somebody else when they need to provide lunch to their staff or for a meeting. With our corporate clients, we've established ourselves as the choice for pizza. Now, when they want to order pizza, they're not even going to think of anybody else because it's easy for them to order from us with their account."
Allum says he spends a significant amount of time calling on businesses near Amici's stores and trying to develop relationships with them. It's a grass-roots approach, and it works.
"Our goal is to get people to try our food," he said. "We feel like if people try it, a good percentage of them will turn into repeat customers."
Try it, you'll like it
Amici's takes the same approach with the general public. During periods of high foot traffic outside the stores, employees often hit the sidewalks with complementary food samples. While mass marketing can be beneficial, Allum insists that nothing is better than actually putting food in the mouths of potential customers.
"People get numb to marketing," he says. "Taking out samples is much more effective."
Thanks to sampling, as well as the proximity of Amici's stores to homes and offices, carryout accounts for 10 percent of the company's sales. Delivery weighs in at 50 percent, while dine-in stands at 40 percent.
Amici's owner, Peter Cooperstein, says excelling in all three service areas is a crucial component to his company's success.
In 2003, the seven-store system reported nearly $20.3 million in gross sales, which put Amici's atop Pizza Today's 2004 Hot 100 Independents list (which was released in October). This is the fourth straight time Amici's was ranked No. 1 on the chart.
"We do a really good job at the big three components of pizza service," says Cooperstein. "We do a big dine-in, but delivery is half of our sales and we also do a lot of carryout. If you look at successful large operations, they usually aren't able to put all three together. At Domino's, there's no dine-in. At California Pizza Kitchen, there's no delivery. We're able to do all three well."
Amici's falls into the fast-casual category, where speed of service is on a par with food quality. Cooperstein says his stores are able to offer exceptionally quick service thanks to the brick ovens they use.
"We cook at a high temperature, so a thin-crust pizza only takes eight minutes," he says. "A customer can come in and really have their pizza in 10 minutes.
For delivery, we keep a small delivery area and our drivers only take one order at a time. So, if someone calls, we can get them the pizza in 20 to 35 minutes. When the customer gets their order that quickly, they really appreciate it."
Go with the flow
Due to the high volume of traffic in Amici's stores, Allum says an efficient design and dining room layout are essential.
"There's a battle between functionality and aesthetics, and we feel like we end up with a good compromise," he says. "Each store is a little different, but you can walk into any store and know it's an Amici's."
To perpetuate the East Coast theme, the walls at Amici's are decorated with black and white photographs of sports stars from cities like New York and Boston. From a photo of Hall of Famer Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform at the end of his illustrious baseball career to a famous portrait of Ted Williams posing with Joe DiMaggio, these East Coast icons help remind customers why Amici's uses the slogan "A Taste of New York." It's about theme, says Cooperstein, and authentic East Coast images complement authentic East Coast food.
Amici's uses an open kitchen, high ceilings and large windows that allow natural light to pass through and create an inviting atmosphere. Still, a beatific space in itself does not constitute sound design.
"The big challenge is that every space is a bit different in shape or whatever. It's also a challenge to have no cross traffic. You don't want drivers bumping into people in the dining area or bumping into people waiting for carryout," says Allum.
Cooperstein added that the ideal solution to the problem of cross traffic is to have three separate entrances: one for carryout, one for the drivers and one for dine-in guests.
"That flow is critical," he said. "We've learned a lot through trial and error over time. We're learning something with each place we add."
When it comes to adding stores, Amici's believes slow and steady wins the race. The company has opened five units in the past five years, and Cooperstein says the one-a-year approach is not likely to change. In addition to keeping as much capital as possible freed for other expenses, slow growth also permits Amici's to open new locations with well-trained employees that are familiar the system. When a new store opens, it typically is staffed with managers who have spent time in other Amici's shops. The benefit to this literally pays off financially thanks to the fact it promotes consistency and smooth operations.
Slow growth also allows Amici's to focus on relationships with vendors. That, says Allum, has been valuable.
"Our focus is on quality, and that starts with what we bring through the doors," he says. "Whether it be food items or credit card processing or POS systems, we invest a lot of time in finding the best possible items out there and trying to build relationships with companies that will grow with us."
Jeremy White is editor-in-chief at PIZZA TODAY.