the phd of pizza

Nice N Easy’s foodservice expert took its programs to the next level by applying a more scholarly approach.

By Kate Quackenbush, Associate Editor

Jack Cushman has made foodservice the focus of his education and career—and pizza is his forte. He received his Ph.D. from Kansas State University in Hotel, Restaurant, Institutional Foodservice and Dietetics. He then taught at both KSU’s and Ithaca College’s business schools, and has also taught foodservice classes at KSU and Syracuse University.

After operating a c-store on Kansas State’s campus, he gained hands-on food experience with Dominos Pizza Inc. until he left to become the vice president of foodservice for Nice N Easy (Canastota, NY) five years ago.

When Cushman came on board, he examined how the programs in each store operated and saw room for improvement. Each store used a different sauce based on customer preferences, which broke rule No. 1 when it comes to developing a strong brand: consistency.

“Consistency is as important as quality when it comes to building sales,” says Cushman. “Customers want to know that they’re getting the same pizza every time. So we had to get everyone on the same page with sauce.”

Rather than satisfying stores individually, Cushman decided for the 80-store chain that it was better to get the best cheese and sauce in the region instead of the best nationally, since the chain is a regional player, not a national contender. The same went for toppings. But Cushman is a man who enjoys the science of food, so he physically examined everything the area had to offer.

“Our sauce comes from New Jersey tomatoes, which are grown in rich soil,” says Cushman. “Our cheese is expensive, but it’s good. The dairy where we get our quality cheese controls what the cows are eating so our cheese is very consistent in look and taste. It’s what pizza professionals use, and it’s perfect for our purposes in a convenience format.”

With the right quality and consistency in place, home meal replacement became the next objective for Nice N Easy. Cushman saw customers buying slices as impulse purchases, but the only way to increase sales was to get them thinking about whole pies.

“Our foodservice sales grow every year, but as we become more of a madeto-order foodservice operation, the grabandgo is not what sells,” he says. “Customers want freshly made food. They will make impulse purchases, but we don’t want to only be an impulse stop, we want to be a true destination for foodservice.

“We started a special on Mondays where we sold a whole pie—cheese or pepperoni—for $5,” Cushman continues. “It took off immediately, and we soon realized our ovens couldn’t handle the volume. We needed to either shrink the demand by raising the price, or take the pressure off by adding another day to the promotion, so we did both. We added Wednesday and raised the price to $5.99 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and we saw some stores selling as many as 120 pizzas in that window.”

An impressive feat, but it takes more than 120 pizzas to get Cushman giddy. He recognizes this as a great achievement for a convenience retailer, but his previous experience in restaurants showed that a good hour for a pizza restaurant might consist of 220 pizzas sold.

As customers continued to open themselves up to the program, Cushman wondered if specialty pies would take the offer a step further. Cushman thought specialty pies would take the emphasis off cheese and pepperoni, and distinguish Nice N Easy as a pizza destination—rather than just being a c-store that sold food.

Nice N Easy’s foodservice employees already had some interesting pie recipes that they created in the field during downtime. Cushman felt it was time to showcase those recipes chainwide to see how they would be received. Would customers be able to see a convenience retailer as a pizza restaurateur?

“We have a tomato-bacon-ranch pizza, a garlic pizza and a hot wing pizza,” says Cushman. “The pies would be rotated on a 60-day marketing program—not on sale, just promoting them with signage and pictures to get our customers’ attention. We wanted to see if we would sell more pizzas that were not discounted and if we could get our patrons interested in our specialty pies. If we could, it would legitimize our food program.”

The strategy worked. Nice N Easy saw sales of its $5.99 pies level off. Sales of full price and specialty pies, which cost $9.99, started to grow, with some stores selling upwards of $1,000 per store per week.

“Our convenient pizza shop idea had taken off,” says Cushman. “We created a convenience format where people were comfortable buying food, and that, to me, is poetry in motion.”

Eyeing the bottom line
When asked about controlling costs, Cushman brings it all back to a simple but valuable economics lesson.

“The best way to control costs in this environment is to see the entire value chain in every product,” he says. “You can own a product from the whole value chain—from start to finish—but sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Henry Ford, for example, found it was less costly to buy steel rather than mining the ore himself to make cars. We try to go deep into the value chain as long as we avoid aspects where we are not experts and where the economics of scale don’t make sense.

“Controlling costs goes back to that value chain,” he continues. “We buy pre-sliced meats and lettuce for our foodservice and use bake-off premeasured dough. Not only is it a matter of cost, it’s consistency and safety. Our purchasing power also gives us a leg up.”

Buying smart and having the right people on staff is the best advice Cushman can offer to keep costs in line. Labor and good foodservice managers are invaluable tools for any operation—but it always helps to “speak their language.”

“Everyone throws stuff away, but it’s up to foodservice managers to run the operation and control the food costs,” he says. “Waste sheets don’t control everything. If there’s a real problem they can help you see it, but our managers understand food costs, proper purchasing and consistency.

“The quality of life for a typical restaurant manager is tough—they make great money, but they have to work a lot of long hours, and their weekends are never free,” Cushman continues. “When I’m hiring someone for foodservice, I look for people with restaurant backgrounds—people who can use their experience to deliver what we want to do. Then I push the ‘quality of life button.’ After working at one end of the spectrum, they’re willing to give up some of the money if they can have time with their families.”

Making the most
As Nice N Easy scans the foodservice horizon, it continues to look for new ways to innovate. Its family of food offers is already substantial, but there’s always the potential to improve sales. For Cushman, taking a look at the company’s competition opens his eyes to new avenues, new opportunities and new profits.

“We’re looking into getting away from mainstream pizzas and introducing some new ideas,” says Cushman. “Breakfast pizzas are big and we’re getting into those, but also the idea of dessert pizzas—cherry, apple, Dutch apple. How do we get into that market? What are the margins? There are a lot of questions to be answered, but it’s interesting. We’re also curious about what else we can do with our ovens. Subway and Quiznos are toasting their subs, so why can’t we? Basically, we’re looking to maximize [the use of] our equipment.

“We could see five years ago that we had the tools for something great; it was just a matter of dedicating ourselves to it,” he adds. “What’s scary is that anyone can do it if they’re willing to throw themselves into it. So five years from now we need to be light years ahead of where we are today. The competition never sleeps and neither do we.”

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