Local pizza shops defend turf from new rivals

November 5, 2012

Local shops defend turf from new rivals in tough times

Denise Trowbridge, For The Columbus Dispatch  

Local pizza shops are fighting to hold on to a shrinking piece of the pie.

“There are a lot of restaurants not having a lot of luck in the pizza business right now, with zero growth in sales,” said Mark Ulrey, owner of Flyer’s Pizza. “In this market, with the economy the way it is, if you don’t have a fantastic product and you don’t know who your audience is, it’s extremely difficult to be successful.

“This is not a vibrant economy like five years ago, when people had a lot of money to throw around.”

The past five years have not been kind to pizza purveyors, according to international research firm IBISWorld. Consumers cutting back on spending, plus intense competition from other pizza restaurants, have buffeted the sector.

Pizza places also are taking a hit as more grocery stores offer take-and-bake pizzas, “which entice customers away from pizza-delivery shops,” the IBISWorld report said. On top of all that, the prices of core pizza ingredients such as cheese and wheat are rising, and those “higher costs will hamper profit margins in the next five years,” the report said.

The slim silver lining is that revenue in the pizza business overall is expected to grow by 2.9 percent each year, as “consumers increasingly view pizza as the ‘go-to’ food when they don’t feel like cooking,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of research firm Technomic.

The bad news: central Ohio pizza shops will have to split the tiny increase in sales with a growing number of pizza restaurants. Florida-based Westshore Pizza said last year it planned to open 10 more restaurants in central Ohio. Pies and Pints, a small chain with locations in West Virginia, will open in the Shops at Worthington Place, and Atlanta-based Stevi B’s Pizza Buffet, a gourmet-pizza buffet, plans to open a restaurant in Columbus early next year.Locally owned mom-and-pop shops also have entered the market in recent years, such as Don Christos in Powell, Harvest Pizzeria in German Village and Yellow Brick Pizza in Olde Town East. Natalie’s Coal-fired Pizza is set to open on N. High St. in the coming weeks.

“It’s absolutely scary when we see more growth from big players and hear of more mom-and-pop pizza places opening,” said Casey King, co-owner of Amato’s Woodfired Pizza in Delaware. “If a new restaurant opens down the road, we know people are going to try it, and we might lose a little business, so every day we’re worried. We know we have to stay on the defense, and stay on top of quality, freshness and the staff to keep people coming back.”

Restaurants “are going to be pushed out of business, and we will definitely see some displacement of existing pizza places if all of these new restaurants open here,” Ulrey said.

Even without added competition, times haven’t been easy, said Steve Baumann, who owns Grandad’s Pizza on Morse Road and Katie’s Pizza in Gahanna. Problems such as gasoline-price spikes, road construction and cash-strapped diners have hurt business.

Through tougher times, small mom-and-pop shops have had to make big changes to stay open. For instance, Baumann doubled his delivery area and cut employee hours. He made up for the lack of help by working more than 60 hours a week in the shop.

When he found out that a large chain planned to open down the street, he had to double his advertising budget in a bid to stay at the front of customers’ minds.“It was the only choice I had,” he said. “The market is saturated. You have to step up. People tell me I can’t afford to do all that, but I say I can’t afford not to.”

Amid growing competition, it becomes even more important for existing shops to “know their market, and know who their customers are,” Ulrey said.

Grandad’s and Katie’s, like most other local pizza shops, rely heavily on longtime customers, some of whom no longer live in the neighborhood but drive from across town to pick up a pizza, Bauman said.

Loyalty is the one thing existing pizza shops have over restaurants new to the Columbus market. “People are creatures of habit with their pizza,” King said. “They go with what they like and what is familiar.”

“It all comes back to having a good, consistent product, but beyond that, focusing on building relationships,” Ulrey said. “The big boys come in, and it’s not about relationships, or being part of the community, it’s about the bottom line.”

Off the Menu

Rocco’s Pizza Plus in Grandview Heights has expanded its delivery area. Delivery is available to Grandview and Marble Cliff, and now Upper Arlington residents south of Fishinger Road.

• The Linden Cafe, 1393 Cleveland Ave., is temporarily closed for renovation. No reopening date has been set. The restaurant’s catering division is still operating.

• First Watch, Bob Evans, and Bravo Cucina Italiana were among the nine restaurants in the U.S. receiving high marks for taste, value, service and mood in a recent Consumer Reports poll of restaurant patrons. The poll asked about 48,000 people their opinion of 102 restaurant chains.