Business and Operations
Pizza gathering place
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
How to create unique experiences at your pizzeria through events
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Hosting a special event is an opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind customer experience that, when done successfully, will increase your customer base, deepen customer loyalty, build relationships, strengthen partnerships with other businesses in your community, and increase profits.
In order for restaurants to thrive, they must provide customers with a unique dining experience, suggests recent research by food-service consulting firms.
Creating an experience is a chance for restaurant owners to let their imaginations run wild. From live music to craft beer samplings to special nights built around championship sporting games, knowing your clientele will determine which direction you take. For Morris East Restaurant and Wine Bar in Halifax, their event choice was natural: a Neighbourhood Pizza and Wine Tasting.
“We started the event three years ago and found it’s been a great opportunity to become part of the neighbourhood,” explains Amber MacLean, manager of Morris East. “We’re a restaurant and wine bar so we put a lot of effort into our wine list and pairing it with pizza and that gives us an edge. We’ve had visiting wine-makers in the past, which helps make it interesting, and people like the informal nature of a wine tasting. It’s not stuffy. Pizza is a people food; they can get comfortable.”
Morris East holds the event two to three times a year, which provides enough time to build up interest in between the special nights. With 20 to 25 tickets up for grabs, it sells out quickly. The two-hour affair typically offers four courses with four different wines and is led by a winemaker or sommelier, adding a personal touch that customers appreciate. The focus of the night is determined by the wine being featured. “We had an amazing winemaker from Chile, so one event featured all of his wines. We’ve had all local wines for a private event. There are summer sipper wines and full winter wines, so you can pick seasonally and pair the wine with your existing already-great menu,” MacLean says.
The pizza and wine tasting is hosted in Morris East’s lounge, which has become a form of promotion in itself. Other patrons dining in the restaurant get a glimpse of the event taking place and become interested in attending the next one. MacLean says the event spurs dividends felt year round. “It creates relationships with customers and that’s really where you see the profits. Oftentimes they become a repeat customer throughout the year.”
To ensure the night is a success, MacLean’s advice is to stick with your menu, keep it small and intimate, and enjoy the opportunity to connect with your guests. “There’s no need to go outside the box. Stay with your menu because that’s what people love, that’s why they’re there. Keep it relatively small – you could do 30 comfortably – and keep it personalized. It’s a great opportunity to connect with your guests, pouring wine and answering questions. It’s that one-on-one and personal touch that people are after.”
Interactive event nights are another way to draw customers in, giving them an unforgettable experience. John Chetti, founder of Queen Margherita Pizza (QMP) in Toronto, recently held a “Pizza Libs” night where 20 people teamed up in groups of four to compete in a pizza cookoff. “The trick is to get people involved in something they want to do,” Chetti explains. “A lot of people throw random things in the air that don’t really work, but this seems to be different because people actually want to learn about pizza and want to know how to create flavour profiles and what goes together. People want to get their hands dirty and feel the experience.”
QMP has been teaming up with event organizer U-Feast, formerly Pasta Table, to offer unique event experiences that resonate with customers. U-Feast describes itself as providing “epic food experiences at Toronto’s hottest restaurants,” taking care of all the marketing details for the events. “It started off as a one-off but because of the success it’s becoming more of a partnership,” Chetti notes, with a November cookoff being the sixth event they’ve partnered on.
Ophelia Wong, manager of QMP, says the night was another great success. “We actually brought Creemore in so they sponsored the event and did a beer tasting. We do the events at the beginning of the week so we really only take one section of the restaurant, with 80 seats leftover for our regular customers. I feel like it’s pretty foolproof; we work together [with U-Feast] to plan a menu and discuss how it’s going to run.”
Chetti says hosting special event nights is a chance to connect with customers in a truly unique way. “When we’re doing an event like this, it’s our opportunity to show new people, ‘Hey, this is what we do. Have some fun and come back and enjoy the restaurant.’ That collaboration with the chef and interactive experience gives them a sense of accomplishment for their project and an understanding of how hard it is to be really good in this industry. So that’s the message. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Diana Cline, co-founder of Diana’s Cucina & Lounge in Winnipeg has turned the interactive experience into a collaboration between two works of art. Cline is set to host her seventh “Healing Power of Art and Pizza” event in December. A multiple Canadian Pizza magazine Chef of the Year champion, she was inspired to combine self-care and healing with the power of art and pizza.
Teaming up with artist Kisa MacIsaac, owner of Power of Painting, the popular night begins with a presentation on self-care, followed by a smudging (purification using smoke from specific sacred plants and herbs) to clear away worries, doubts and negativity. Then Cline jumps into the pizza portion of the night, covering pizza making, dough making and the natural “real food” ingredients that go into her award-winning pizzas. “It’s a really wonderful way for me to connect with people on that level and talk about my pizzas. We follow up with a pizza buffet so everyone gets to sample eight of our very popular, unique pizzas. Of course, we’re fully licensed so everyone usually has a drink or two and then we paint. Kisa leads us to create a painting for each event and everybody always leaves saying how much fun they had,” Cline explains.
The event is hosted every two to three months in the restaurant’s lounge and averages about 22 participants, making for an intimate evening of creativity. By holding it on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, Cline can fill her restaurant on an otherwise slow night. With a carefully planned budget that covers MacIsaac’s portion of the night, the food and a tip for servers and kitchen staff, Cline notes that it’s a very profitable evening. It also provides her with a rare opportunity to share her knowledge of food with her clientele. “This event is very unique because it gives me the chance for education-based marketing. It’s where I have time to explain for example that a three-litre tin of olive oil is the same price as a 20-litre tin of canola oil,” Cline says.
After the first couple of events, Cline quickly discovered that streamlining ticket sales for the night was a must. She now uses Eventbrite, an online company that sells tickets and handles registrations so she and her staff can rest easy.
Her advice for other restaurateurs planning a special event is simple: Be organized! “Understand that you’re inviting people for an experience, so make sure you know what experience you’re giving them prior to them arriving. Everything needs to be set up and in place.”
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Canadian Pizza magazine.