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Spinning PIE into success


Here’s a math question that’s sure to intrigue. How do you turn 10
pizzas eaten in 12 minutes into a 35 per cent boost in sales?

Here’s a math question that’s sure to intrigue. How do you turn 10 pizzas eaten in 12 minutes into a 35 per cent boost in sales? Randy Feltis and Craig Russell, co-owners of PIE Wood Fired Pizza Joint in Barrie, Ont., found one way: get two famous eaters to face off.

 spinning 
Co-owner Randy Feltis (left) and head pizza chef Natanael  Gammarota proudly show off their pie in the open pizza kitchen.


 

Feltis and Russell happened to be drumming up sales strategies when Japan’s number one eating champ, Takeru Kobayashi, was arrested in the United States for rushing the stage at a hotdog eating competition, after the Major League Eating folks denied him entry because he didn’t sign a contract with them. When it happened, PIE was already conducting its own eating contests with customers. They had 24 spaces marked on a blackboard. When customers ate a Queen pizza, staff timed them and the quickest time got up on the board.

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“When my partner saw Kobayashi’s arrest he said, “We can get this guy here for our eating competition,” says Feltis. “We did some e-mails back and forth [with Kobayashi] and then he said he was in and the whole thing exploded.”

Explode it did, into some major press, covered by the likes of TMZ, CNN, The Toronto Star, and of course, the local media. But Kobayashi needed a serious competitor. So Canada’s own “Furious” Pete Czerwinski, who set a Guinness World Record for eating a 72-ounce steak in six minutes and 48 seconds, jumped into the game with Battle Pizza Pie set to go down on Aug. 22. Hundreds of onlookers, both inside the restaurant and camped out under umbrellas in the rainy parking lot, watched Kobayashi defeat his opponent, eating 40 slices to his 29. Five locals competed as well, earning their place alongside the big league eaters by coming out on top in the original 24 spaces and subsequent two heats of 12 on PIE’s blackboard.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen the day of …we had way too many staff on, they didn’t know what was going on; there were cameras everywhere. You just have to roll with the punches,” says Feltis of hosting an event of this calibre. “It was crazy, but lots of fun, so you just smile, grin and bear it.”

Although Feltis had been mulling over the idea of a pizzeria for 10 years, the chaos of championship eating on display in his restaurant may have been tough to foresee. Ever since his apprenticeship at an Italian restaurant with a wood-burning oven, the heart of Feltis’s vision has been to make wood-fired unique pies. The end result is quite a different atmosphere from Oscar’s, the fine dining restaurant in downtown Barrie that he’s owned for 11 years. PIE’s menu, which Feltis developed, features toppings such as braised beef shanks and pork shoulders served in a laid-back, family friendly atmosphere built for fun. Chefs spin dough in front of customers and pizzas are made centrally on display where people easily watch the chefs at work and see the pies going in and out of the oven. Videos are streamed on the wall to the tune of cheerful music. There are no linens, your menu is your placemat and servers wear T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.

“When we opened this place, we wanted our target market to be everybody. We have 15-year-olds come here on dates; somebody had their 90th birthday party here and everything in between – and that’s what pizza’s all about.”

Feltis and Russell are working hard to keep the sales momentum from the pizza-eating contest going. For three weeks after the contest, Feltis says their numbers were up 35 per cent and they are forecasting a 10 to 20 per cent boost for the year. At the time of our interview, Feltis estimated they had sold about 43,000 pizzas since opening without offering delivery. With plans to make the eating competition an annual event, they are making some changes to solidify its presence in the restaurant. Kobayashi came in and designed his own pie, which will be added to the menu. They’re also changing the name of the Queen pizza to Koby 40, because Kobayashi ate 40 slices of it. The contest spawned requests for merchandise, and PIE T-shirts and hats are available for purchase. Feltis also sells balls of PIE pizza dough to customers for $4. In early 2011, they’ll start doing qualifiers again to gear the local competitors up for the next event.

Feltis and Russell are planning a pizza spinning competition and have their chefs practising. They are also going to make pre-baked shells for the kids to throw, says Feltis. The competitions give everyone something to talk about, but Feltis says it’s the quality of the food that keeps people coming back.

“We got really lucky in this shop. When we first opened the doors, I’d been making dough for 10 years at Oscar’s, but I thought it was only at 80 per cent of where it needed to be. Then Natanael [Gammarota], our head dough maker, walked in the door. He had broken English but he was a pizza chef from Italy and he needed a job. The evolution of the dough since he’s taken over has been phenomenal.”

Feltis and Russell keep their servers well trained on where ingredients are coming from. Opening during a recession in a location that failed three times, Feltis says they knew it was important to have the quality and value for the dollar. He knows 220 seats is a lot to fill, and while quick, tasty and affordable is the vision, at the end of the day, PIE is a high-end pizzeria and the pizzas do cost a little bit more, he says. Originally, Feltis gravitated towards fine dining to make the kind of food he wanted to, but now that high-end food is becoming more socially widespread and acceptable, he can source and sell high-quality food in a more casual atmosphere. Aside from great taste, PIE is certain to grow a reputation for the unusual – the new menu will feature a $100 foie gras pizza. Whether or not anyone coughs up the cash for that extravagant pie, it’s another sure-fire way to get people talking.