Independent Pizza Entrepreneurs Find Success in Distinctive Menu, Loyal Fans


Independent Pizza Entrepreneurs Find Success in Distinctive Menu, Loyal Fans

After having built a strong following at two locations in Portland, Maine, Otto Pizza opened its first quick serve restaurant store in February of this year. A fairly petite pizza shop, it can be found a bit further south ─ in Cambridge, Mass. ─ and is less than 300 square feet, but it serves a busy, hungry professional and student crowd in Harvard Square near the historic and prestigious Harvard University.

Anthony Allen, a co-owner of Otto, says that slices make up 50 percent of the business. It's not a surprise that the small chain has been featured in the Food Network's web properties, and on air on its sister brand, the Cooking Channel. Both networks featured the Mashed Potato, Bacon and Scallion Pizza as a creative, gourmet offering. According to Allen, the pizza is premier and distinctive, with the potato being mashed by hand, with added cream and butter.

Other bestsellers at the chain, according to Allen, include the more traditional Pepperoni Pizza, followed by the Butternut Squash, Ricotta and Cranberry and the Pulled Pork and Mango. Allen points out that all the pizzas "move," and that the unique combinations and flavors are part of the signature of the brand that he and Mike Keon have built.

Unlike a traditional pizza shop, Otto Pizza draws on the culinary talents of both owners and the mostly CIA (Culinary institute of America)-trained managers to drive its menu and its exacting quality. The inspiration for Otto Pizza was mostly the opportunity of a prime location in downtown Portland, combined with the chance to bring Keon's culinary expertise to bear in creating some very creative pies.

In Portland, Otto Pizza's locations are near a busy strip, where other restaurants, bars and clubs have now built up a presence. Allen mentions the Flatbread chain location in Portland as another eatery with a distinctive menu and strong following. He says that the restaurant has more of a fixed neighborhood feel, and is closer to Portland's Waterfront (Otto Pizza's second location is at 225 Congress Street).

"If people think of us when they think about Flatbread, then I feel fortunate," says Allen. Flatbread's menu has a focus on natural and additive-free ingredients and serves up flatbread items with various gourmet toppings, along with salads; it has ten locations, mostly in Massachusetts. The Portland Flatbread is at 138 Congress Street.

In Harvard, Allen says the Otto Pizza chain has achieved its differentiation through offering value with speed and convenience. "We're a great value," he adds. "Three bucks for cheese. It's fast, it's good, it's cheap. We focus on highly traffic[ked] pedestrian areas." According to Allen, it's not very easy for pedestrians to grab food on the go, or "pop out of the T (the subway system in Boston and Cambridge)," and get food as quickly.

While other operators moan and groan about the economy, Otto Pizza thrives. Allen says that the economy has definitely helped ─ people are definitely looking for value. With $7, his customers can walk out with two slices of premium pizza and a bottled water. “Where else can you do that?,” he asks. Otto's following is strong; Facebook fans also feel the pizza love since Otto has nearly 1,200 of them.

Beyond offering value, his best practices in building differentiation across Otto Pizza's three stores are:

  • Quality: Deliver a highly recognizable and differentiated product, having unique menu items
  • Location: Secure prime trade areas with high foot traffic
  • Consistency: Stick to core competencies and the game plan you've laid out

As an independent, growing pizza chain, Allen's strategy, management and perspective offer an upbeat view of the potential for independent success in the pizza business.

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See also What the latest in consumer trends tell pizza operators

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This story appears in:  Operations & People