unnamed (1)Acclaimed champion pizza maker, pizza acrobat, and pizzeria consultant Michael Shepherd has earned worldwide accolades for his skills. Based in the small town of Bellefontaine, Ohio, Michael has proven you don’t need to be in a large metro market to grow a million-dollar pizzeria. His own pizzeria, Six Hundred Downtown, is one of the most popular in the state; he also consults other pizza makers with his Growing Pizza business. I had the pleasure of meeting Michael through industry events, and he later granted me an interview to lend insight into how he’s been able to grow a million-dollar pizzeria from scratch. 

Shawn Randazzo: You’ve been able to grow million dollar pizzerias in towns populated by fewer than 10,000 people and with minimal advertising budget. What’s the secret to building a million-dollar pizzeria from scratch?

Michael Shepherd: First off you need to have some patience. Slow growth is usually permanent growth. Grow too fast and you risk upsetting customers because you can’t handle the volume. Aside from that the number one thing to focus on is building word of mouth. Getting your name in front of people has gotten harder and harder. No one looks at the yellow pages, no one reads the newspaper, no one is listening to the radio, etc. Besides when people want to find a good restaurant to eat at they usually ask their friends for a recommendation. You need to be the place that they recommend, you need to be the place that everyone is talking about. You have to be something or have something that makes people want to talk about you, ask questions about you and seek you out.

You can’t usually expect to spend nothing on advertising in the beginning. It took me years to get to the point where I no longer spend much at all on marketing. My newest pizzeria is the only one that I spent almost nothing for advertising from day one.

unnamed (2)Me, personally, I did it with this strategy:

1. I have an amazing pizza, second to none (well at least not in my area).

2. I have the best customer service and the best recovery plan for when we screw up.

Then I proceeded to:

3. Become very actively involved in the community by supporting local charities, partnering with schools, and actually doing real good in the community.

4. I became something that made people talk. For us we became very active in pizza competitions, myself and my staff. My staff and I have won over a dozen gold medals and dozens of others at competitions all across the country and the world in competitions such as acrobatic pizza tossing, largest dough stretch, and fastest dough. Two of my managers have become the only two women to ever win gold medals at the World Pizza Games in Las Vegas. Our team, the World Pizza Champions, won the team acrobatic competition at the World Pizza Championships back to back in 2006-2007. I have appeared on the Food Network three times, on the Discovery Channel, German Television, Canadian Television and many other shows. All of this drove free publicity both locally and nationally.

Additionally we use Social Media as a vehicle to interact with our customer base, share our fun, and generate word of mouth.

5. Of course along the way I still used much of the traditional proven methods: new resident mailings, loyalty programs, direct mail, database marketing, door hanging, box topping, etc.

SR: What are the best no-budget and low-budget pizzeria marketing strategies?

MS: Database marketing, New Resident Program, Community Involvement and proper use of Social Media

unnamed (3)SR: What are the advantages and disadvantages of operating a pizzeria in a small town?

MS: Advantages: Lower cost of doing business, easier to be a part of the community, easier to generate word of mouth, easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Disadvantages: Fewer customers, less diverse business/industrial base, easier to get a black eye/damaged reputation if you screw up.

SR: You offer consulting for other pizzerias; what is your approach to teaching other entrepreneurs to build successful pizzerias?

MS: My goal is to always get my clients to totally understand how and what they need to do rather than for me to just do it for them. I always prefer to coach them along and act as training wheels so that when I am done they can do it on their own.

The first thing that I try and get operators to understand is the business/financial model. What is the profit potential of your business? What are your break even numbers? Understanding prime costs (food/labor) and how to obtain the numbers they need. You can have a great concept and an amazing pizza but if you aren’t profitable it doesn’t matter.

Making a great pizza is the easy part – running a business is the hard part.

SR: What was the single biggest challenge you faced when starting your first pizzeria? How did you overcome it?

MS: Being young. At 24 years old everyone thought I didn’t know what I was doing. I just kept doing it until I proved them wrong. I made pizza, I made customers happy, and I made money. I ignored all stereotypes, expectations and blazed my own path. Now, 18 years later local business owners still tell me I don’t know how to run a business – its rather humorous.

SR: What is the single best piece of advice you would offer to those considering starting their own pizzerias?

unnamedMS: First get yourself a solid pizza education. Get a job working at a good independent pizzeria, take some schooling (International School of Pizza/Tony Gemignani), attend Pizza Expo, read Pizza Today magazine, become an expert at making pizza at home, read everything about pizza that you can get your hands on. Then take the time to build a solid business plan and complete financial projections. Know how much money to want to make, then build a pizzeria that will be able to do it – don’t guess. Detail out every single aspect of the business including how many forks you will need, how many paper towel dispensers you will need, how many dishwashers will need to be on the clock on a Friday night, know how many pizzas you need to sell to make a profit, how much it will cost to make a pizza, and know if your community and your kitchen can even support your sales goals.

SR: You serve Detroit Style Pizza – why did you decide to serve this style of pizza?

MS: As a full service pizzeria I wanted to have a decent selection for my customers. Pizza has always been my passion and I really have no desire to sell pasta, wings, etc. I decided to grow the pizza selection from just one kind to four total styles now. I want to sell pizza. Detroit Style is awesome and so now it is on the menu.

SR: How did your local customers respond to Detroit Style Pizza? Were there any challenges in marketing a style of pizza they might not have heard about?

MS: It was slow to take off. We only serve a 10×14 so many people were afraid to get such a large and filling pizza at a somewhat higher price than our others. We gave away plenty of free samples to customers, did some good upselling, and soon enough once they tried it they loved it and were hooked.

SR: You’re not only a 4-time world pizza champion, you’re also an 8-time world medalist pizza acrobat. Are you a pizza acrobat purely for fun, or do you leverage your talent to play a role in your marketing or business model?

MS: As I mentioned earlier we totally embraced the whole acrobatic thing as our USP. “World Famous” is one of our slogans. It is who we are and is the cornerstone of our entire marketing plan. It pulls people from all over our state to come and visit us. It is one of the reasons we are able to do the sales volume that we do – many of our customers are from outside our county.

unnamed (4)SR: How does your consulting program work? What can your clients expect to learn?

MS: I am willing to help people out in just about any way I can. Oftentimes someone will just need some simple advice over the phone or email and we are done in a few hours, sometimes I help people open from the ground up, other instances I have weekly calls to keep people on the right track, and one of my favorite things to do is when someone is struggling and just doesn’t know what to do and they need me to come in and dissect their business and create a plan to turn things around.

SR: Why should those who are considering starting their own pizzeria invest in a consulting/training program?

MS: Not everyone will need to hire a consultant, but those who have never worked in the pizza business really need to reach out to someone who has lived and breathed it for a long time. The pizza business has an illusion of being an easy business but it is not. Sometimes people just need a little dose of reality to make sure they set off on the right path. I hate to see anyone invest their life savings only to lose it 10 months later when they close their doors.

SR: Anything else you would like to add?

MS: People can check out my website at growingpizza.com to get my free e-book on the 10 Fundamental Pillars of Pizza Marketing as well as check out lots of other good stuff including templates, books, my articles, and my blog.

Also make plans to catch me at Pizza Expo next year where I will be running the World Pizza Games and probably giving a few seminars.

Michael Shepherd is owner/president of 70X7 Incorporated that operates Six Hundred Downtown in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Michael is also the founder and former owner of Michael Angelo’s Pizza in Kenton & Rushsylvania, OH.

From humble beginnings as a delivery driver for a national chain to the owner of three independent pizzerias, he has over 20 years of experience in the pizza business. Growing his original pizzeria from a meager $2,000 per week to over $1 million dollars a year in sales in a town of only 8,000 and opening his newest pizzeria at the $1.2 million sales mark in a town of 13,000 with an advertising budget of nearly zero.

He is 4 Time World Pizza Champion and 8 Time World Medalist Pizza Acrobat, holding more international medals than any other American. As a founding member of the World Pizza Champions, he has traveled to Italy competing at the World Pizza Championships in Italy annually since 2002. In 2006/2007 his team won back to back Gold Medals in the Team Acrobatic Event. He has been featured on the Food Network, ABC’s Master of Champions, Discovery Channel, and more.

Michael is a featured speaker for Pizza Today magazine, organizes and manages the World Pizza Games for the International Pizza Expo, is a certified Italian Pizza Maker (certified by the International School of Pizza) and teaches at local adult vocational schools on how to make pizzeria quality pizza at home.

Notable Acrobatic Shows

Edika Food Show : Munich, Germany – 2004
Clarksburg Italian Festival: Clarksburg, WV – 2004
Lima Italian Festival: Lima, OH – 2005/2006
Presto Foods Foodshow: Belterra, IN – 2005
GFS Foodshow: Grand Rapids, MI & Columbus, OH – 2006
Pizzarelli Pizza Tour: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – 2006
4th of July Parade: Lewis Center, OH – 2006/2007/2011/2013
Pizza Expo: Las Vegas, Atlantic City, NY City, Chicago 2005-2012
Hampton Roads Italian Festival, VA Beach, VA – 2006-2008:
North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show: Columbus, OH 2005-2007
Sofo Foods Foodshow: Toledo, OH – 2006/2007
Feast of San Gennaro: Verona, NY – 2008
All Things Italian Festival: Fairfield, IA – 2008
Feast of San Gennaro, Alpine Country Club: Demarest, NJ 2009, 2013, 2014
Summit County Italian American Festival: Akron, OH 2009, 2010, 2011
Rally at the Peak: Bellefontaine, OH 2009, 2010, 2011

TV Appearances

Food Network: World Pizza Challenge 2003
Food Network: Pizza Battle 2005
Food Network: Challenge – Pizza Champions 2006
ABC “Master of Champions” 2006
Discovery Channel: Short Takes – 2007
OLN – “Get Stuffed” – 2012
CNN
CBS: Life & Style
Chevere Nights: Domincan Republic 2006
Pasion Gourmet: Dominican Republic 2006
Gozalo!: Dominican Republic 2006
Galileo: Germany 2007

PIZZA CHAMPION TITLES

Gold Medal “Squadra Acrobatica ” Salsomaggiore, Italy 2007
Gold Medal – “Squadra Acrobatica ” Salsomaggiore, Italy 2006
Gold Medal “Team Acrobatic” Las Vegas, NV 2005
Silver Medal – Largest Stretch: Salsomaggiore, Italy 2007
Bronze Medal – Largest Stretch: Salsomaggiore, Italy 2006, 2009
Silver Medal – Fastest Pizza: Salsomaggiore, Italy 2005
Silver Medal – Team Acrobatic: Salsomaggiore, Italy 2005
Gold Medal – Largest Dough Stretch: Salsomaggiore, Italy 2004
Gold Medal – Largest Dough Stretch: Columbus, OH 2002
Silver Medal – Largest Dough Stretch: New York City, NY 2003
Silver Medal – Freestyle Acrobatics: New York City, NY 2003
Bronze Medal – Fastest Dough: New York City, NY 2003
Gold Medal – Largest Dough Stretch: Los Angeles, CA 2004
Gold Medal – Fastest Dough: Los Angeles, CA 2004
Silver Medal – Fastest Dough: New York City, NY 2005
Silver Medal – Largest Dough Stretch: New York City, NY 2005
Bronze Medal – Freestyle Acrobatics: New York City, NY 2005

HONORS & AWARDS

Hardin County Business of The Year 2007
2006 SBA Business of The Year Runner Up
2008 20 Under 40 Entrepreneur Award

PIZZERIA AWARDS

1st Place Gourmet Pizza Pizzazz Columbus, OH 2003
Best Pizza: YMCA Taste of Hardin County 2005
Best Entree: YMCA Taste of Hardin County 2005
Best Pizza: Taste of Logan County 2007, 2008, 2009
1st Place: Sofo Foods Pizza Showdown 2006
Pizza Festiva: Pizza of the Year Finalist 2007
1st Place: International Pizza Challenge (Southwest Division) 2014
3rd Place: International Pizza Challenge (MidAmerica Division) 2015
3rd Place:Gourmet Pizza Pizzazz – Columbus, OH 2015