Our Chef of the Year
Written by Laura Aiken
Every year I get a big envelope from Cory Medd. I know just what to expect: two to three recipes, cleanly typed and neatly laid out with pictures and updates on his pizzeria, Two Guys and a Pizza Place. Smatterings of exclamation marks punctuate short declarations designed to sell us judges on his pizza.
He’s wooed the Chef of the Year judges before, first winning the honour in 2008. This year we couldn’t resist including his Louisiana Cajun Chicken Pizza as a finalist. There was no disappointment on bake-day after picking this fun pizza that made great use of the potently exotic cilantro.
Medd has a knack for allowing simplicity to exist in the complexity of a gourmet pizza. Cheese blends, twisted sauces and the finishes touches, like cilantro or balsamic glazes, are hallmarks of his signature touches. He has shown that complexity can be done in a busy place. His shop in Lethbridge, Alta., serves 1,600 to 2,000 pizzas a week. On a Friday night he is averaging between 500 and 580 pies through four ovens.
Medd, a native of Brandon, Man., started in food service as a bartender then ventured into serving before landing in Lethbridge to study marketing. The lack of winter and mosquitos, coupled with its proximity to the mountains, U.S. border and Calgary, convinced the recently married 33-year-old to plant roots in the city of nearly 88,000.
I sat down with Medd over munchies and margaritas after a suspenseful finale to this year’s Pizza Expo. He finished fifth in the Non-Traditional category, and says he was pleased with the Two Guys entry, an Italian Club pizza featuring a fluffy crust, basil pesto, capicola, pancetta, mozzarella/provolone blend, red onions and cheddar finished with arugula, tomatoes, Parmesan flakes and a swirl of balsamic glaze.
Medd has been a regular contender in the International Pizza Challenge at the Las Vegas Pizza Expo since 2007, after attending his first expo in 2006. However, his first taste of competing was in a competition at a local nightclub. He won that, then went to Calgary to a competition and won again. The desire to compete goes beyond the thrill of the win. His exploits have been great publicity for Two Guys and a Pizza Place.
“It’s motivation and an advertising opportunity as well. No one else in town is doing that; from that you get lots of press, free publicity.” He’s learned a few tricks through the years. His first foray into Pizza Expo was markedly different from the last.
“The first year we brought my favourite pizza and I honestly think we got last place. We struggled with the ovens. The dough was different. The refrigerator was turned off overnight so our dough rose up and was almost unusable. We didn’t really think about testing the product in the ovens, so the first year was a bit of a disaster,” he says with a chuckle. “The second year we got named Chef of the Year and got to go straight to the finals but it was the Traditional category, which isn’t our strength. I think I got, like, seventh out of 10, but it’s getting better every year. Now we even bring our own tap water. We test the ovens. We practise a lot back home before we get here. I was proud of the showing today.”
In competition mode we see Medd the chef. But he wears the hat of Medd the businessman with equal joie de vivre. Technology is the first thing he brings up with me at the Tres Rios Cantina. He is a Speedline fan and is excited about their new push technology, even to the point of showing me how he can get sales reports or see store surveillance on his phone. A POS system was a goal in Year 1 of his business, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this May long weekend.
“I made a $25,000 decision when I was pretty broke back then and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
It turned out to be a wise investment. Medd doubled his sales in Year 1 of business, then doubled again in Year 2, doubling and doubling until winning the 2008 Chef of the Year title, after which he says business flew through the roof. Along the way, shelving was built, more people were hired, the fourth oven was fixed and a new walk-in cooler was built. Sales have been steadier and more predictable since then, allowing Medd to tinker and toy with his burgeoning business.
His pizza trailer is one of his latest inventions. He signs on for festivals, cancer walks, golf tournaments, pretty much anywhere he can get his pizza into the hands of the public and support his community. The pizza trailer gives him the sales boost in summer when pizza typically slumps. He’s even used the pizza trailer as an opportunity to test out potential pizzas for competition. Medd gave the trailer its own Twitter handle and uses it to tell his followers where the trailer is at, which has been everywhere from festivals with crowds of 5,000 to parked on a hole at a golf course.
A new menu will be launched as part of the 10-year anniversary celebrations. The Italian Club will be on a new menu as part of an Italian Family of Artisan Pizzas section. He’s also adding a butter chicken pizza and pulled pork pie with garlic aoli on top. He maximizes publicity by always entering in competition a pizza that’s on his menu. Always thinking of promotions, this one is.
Ten years is a milestone to be proud of, achieved through equal parts pizza, business ingenuity, marketing savvy, luck and, of course, great staff. Medd’s general manager, Gavin Dowell, has been right alongside him since Year 1 and is a familiar face as his assistant at Pizza Expo. Dowell started part time in university and then Medd offered him more hours after school and he ended up staying.
“He looks after his staff. Twice a year we have big parties where he pays for everything. He likes to give back and that’s probably why I stayed,” says Dowell.
The atmosphere of fun and family cultivated at Two Guys has given Medd many longtime staff.
“It’s always fun, it’s always something new,” says Dowell. “We just got the trailer and his ideas for pizzas are so far out, I feel like we’ve been ahead of the curve since Day 1. I’m looking at a wall of pizza books right now,” he says from the shop. “He definitely has the passion for it.”
This is a staff that works together and plays together. Several of the staff even live with Dowell. They rock out to satellite radio in the kitchen and are quick to cover one another’s shifts. It’s an admirable environment, one that Dowell says Medd has fostered through his generosity and willingness to give everyone a voice and feel involved.
Involvement is pretty big theme for Medd. Two Guys and a Pizza Place is eyeballs deep in sponsoring every sports team, from high school to post-secondary, and many other community events.
“We always had the mission of being the best at everything,” says Medd. “Let’s be ‘yes’ people. Let’s sponsor every team and every event, participate in everything we can. Let’s be open earlier and close later and have our own delivery drivers and more of them. It’s more cutthroat now so we’re going more gourmet; our pricing is higher but you get what you pay for.”
Medd has found that with the economy not being at its best in recent years, he has really had to prove the pizza’s worth the price. He emphasizes promoting the ingredients and has ventured into offering combos, of which he sells about 100 a week. Rather than play it cautious and rein in the marketing spend when people got wary with their wallets, Medd just kept the Two Guys brand out there and made sure nobody forgot about the pizza or its great taste.
His marketing savvy has definitely been a key factor in getting the maximum number of people hooked on his pizza. He takes an integrated approach, balancing the new ways of social media with traditional methods of flyers and community involvement. He loves social media, but says he also thinks restaurateurs are missing the mark if it is all they are relying on. He has his business on Facebook and Twitter and invests time in interacting with his customers there. But as a student of marketing, he sees advertising as an investment and wants to be “here, there and everywhere.” He paid to advertise on Facebook and found it a great way to reach his target market many times a day. He likes that it is traceable so you get great information about who is clicking on your link. He also spends time checking out reviews of his pizza place and likes to respond to the negative reviews and thank the positives, although he says he gauges his own presence so as not to be too “annoying” about it. Hes hopes to have online ordering up and running within the next six months and is investigating smartphone and iPad apps.
The times are changing and Medd is right there evolving with them. Future decades look bright for this 10-year pizza shop and its passionate owner, whose creative, consistent and diligent nature is revealed every year in the envelope that comes across my desk at Canadian Pizza.