Canadian Pizza Magazine

Features Profiles
The Diesel difference


A poor location and limited restaurant experience sounds like a combo destined for disaster. This is exactly the predicament Jeff Hughes, an ordained minister, found himself in after relocating from Ontario to the Maritimes to be closer to his wife’s family and children’s grandparents. A conversation with a landlord turned into an offer to buy a pizzeria – one that had had three owners in the past five years. The pizza store is the third restaurant to occupy the site in Riverview, N.B. Still, Hughes took his vision for Diesel Pizza & Wings and jumped in.

A poor location and limited restaurant experience sounds like a combo
destined for disaster. This is exactly the predicament Jeff Hughes, an
ordained minister, found himself in after relocating from Ontario to
the Maritimes to be closer to his wife’s family and children’s
grandparents. A conversation with a landlord turned into an offer to
buy a pizzeria – one that had had three owners in the past five years.
The pizza store is the third restaurant to occupy the site in
Riverview, N.B. Still, Hughes took his vision for Diesel Pizza &
Wings and jumped in.

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“I thought I’d been making pretty good pizza at home so it shouldn’t be
that hard to run a pizza place, but that was not true,” he says with a
tone of easy admission. “The pizza was the easy part I guess.”

Twenty months after taking the pizza plunge, Hughes has created a point
of differentiation for Diesel that has helped him survive in a pretty
competitive landscape, and has learned a few tough lessons along the
way. For Hughes, he found his point of differentiation in being
different. Diesel is one of five pizzerias serving about 7,000 homes in
Riverview. Two are chains and three are independents. Hughes says he
knows of other chains that have been inquiring about setting up shop in
proximity and is preparing for that. Hughes has had to get creative to
stand out amongst his competitors “I think we’re best known for being different and that brings a lot of people to the restaurant.”

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Hughes has a flair for innovative recipes that get people talking. He
offers all the traditional favourite pizza topping combos, but throws
in a few curveballs for the daring. His popular Peanut Butter pizza
blends a peanut butter sauce with ground beef, bacon and cheese. In
what sounds like a mouth-watering option for kids, his Mac & Cheese
pizza mixes Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with mozzarella and smoked
bacon. He gets alligator on the menu with a Cajun Gator pizza. His
other specialty recipes cover a diverse range of ethnic tastes, such as
the Madras Curry or Donair pizzas. He promotes the wings as the
“largest and hottest assortment of wings in the Moncton area” on his
website, challenging customers to a Death Wing Challenge. The wings
menu is infused with campy humour and is a sure lure for the suicide
wing aficionado, another way in which Hughes has worked to
differentiate Diesel.

Hughes says he invents his recipes and then tries them out on his
customers before adding them to the menu to get feedback, as he knows
“some of them [recipes] are pretty out there." His kitchen creativity
has been his biggest success, while his lack of pizzeria experience has
proven to be his biggest challenge in becoming a bona fide pizzaiolo.

One of the trickiest things Hughes says he encountered was in turning
to consultants for information. “I had lots of people coming to me and
telling me they could help me make lots of money. So I lost a lot of
money just by paying people to help me,” he says, adding that if he
could do things differently, “I would stick to what I kind of knew and
was already thinking and find another pizza place in a different city
that can mentor and help me.”

On the marketing side, Hughes developed a VIP program and gives away
one free 12-inch pizza in exchange for signing up. The customer loyalty
program is managed by a third party and allows members to collect
points that go towards free purchases. VIP members also get a monthly
newsletter with additional special offers and free pizza on birthdays
and anniversaries. On the technology side, he recently added the
ability for customers to order through their iPhone, and maintains a
Facebook account that lets people know what all the daily and monthly specials are.

Hughes also offers customers merchandise in the form of girls’, guys’
and kids’ t-shirts. “I wanted to offer people the feel that we were a
bigger restaurant, not just a little independent, and as a restaurant
we wanted to offer as many things as we could. That was an easy thing
to set up and it really didn’t cost any money to do so.”

With the Diesel concept up and rolling, Hughes says he is looking to
open up another location before considering franchising. He says he’d
like to concentrate on improving the dine-in experience to make it more
interesting for people to eat in. The restaurant currently seats 34 and
does 80 per cent take-out/delivery and 20 per cent dine-in business.
But with plans underway to launch a secondary gourmet burger restaurant
within Diesel via a shared kitchen and similar ingredients, Hughes just
may find himself with a larger sit-down crowd. If his gourmet burgers
are anything like his innovative pizzas, they’re sure to generate a
buzz in well-fed Riverview.


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