Pennington Prospers with Pizza

Inside the Numbers

What do one million personal-size pan pizzas add up to? According to the folks at Hot Stuff Foods, about 550,000 pounds in all. It includes 250,000 pounds of dough, 150,000 pounds of custom blended cheese and 62,500 pounds of sauce, plus the meat toppings and vegetables. One million personal-size pan pizza boxes, placed end-to-end, would stretch 94.6 miles. Stacked on top of each other, the stack would be 31.5 miles high.

In an industry marked by outstanding accomplishments, Mike Barry can stand proud. And it’s not just because the small chain owner has embraced—and is thriving with foodservice-—but because his store in rural Thief River Falls, Minn., just eclipsed one million pizzas sold.

At his Pennington branded c-stores Barry uses unique marketing tactics that focus on his strong foodservice program to inspire community involvement and create a fun environment for hardworking employees.

Barry’s efforts at his two-store chain have not only gained employee loyalty and community enthusiasm, but also helped him reach the sales milestone in September.
 
Getting Started
Barry grew up in Thief River Falls and began his business career as the owner of a Dairy Queen in North Dakota. When he and his wife decided to move back to his hometown, they were looking to invest in a new business venture.

Barry reconnected with high school friend Mike Wiebolt, who owned the Pelican Square c-store in Breezy Point, Minn., and the pair decided to combine their experiences to develop a c-store concept.

They began by opening Pennington Square in December 1991, followed by Pennington Main in 1995. The two stores each measure 2,400 square feet and include a Hot Stuff Foods pizza franchise, attached car washes, four fuel pumps each and an unbranded fuel program. The chain soon grew to eight c-stores—four Weibolt owned independently in central Minnesota, and four the men owned together (three in northern Minnesota, including the two Pennington stores, and one in North Dakota).

Over the years, they downsized. Today, Wiebolt focuses on his Pelican Square store that he has owned since 1983, and his other store, Moonlight Square in Cross Lake, Minn., while Barry oversees the two Pennington stores. A good working relationship has helped the business run smoothly all these years. “We were best friends in high school and have had an 18-year partnership, and we’ve never had an argument,” Barry said.

Flourishing Through Foodservice
Foodservice has been an important aspect of the Pennington stores from day one. Barry chose Hot Stuff Foods pizza program as his branded foodservice program and added a full menu to include a take-and-bake program, frozen pizzas and a complete breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner program. Open 24 hours, Pennington Main pumps out pizzas around the clock. Pennington Square, open from 6 a.m.-11 p.m., does a strong business as well.

“Foodservice gave us another avenue,” Barry noted. “When we opened the Pennington Main store, we allocated a lot more space to foodservice. I went with the theory, we’re going to be a pizza place and we’re going to sell gas, not we’re going to sell gas and have pizza.”

That mentality inspired Barry to put more emphasis on expanding and promoting the pizza program. “I think we’re very successful with it, and a lot of that is due to the managers and employees—you have to execute at the store level. It doesn’t just happen automatically,” Barry noted.

The hard work paid off. On Sept. 17, 18 years after first embarking on the pizza program, the company sold its one millionth personal pizza.

When Barry realized the stores were about 4,000 pizzas away from the landmark, he began a promotion to advertise the event. To alert customers, employees donned bright green shirts instead of the usually navy uniform and scratch-off coupons were affixed to the right corner of each pizza box. Customers could scratch to win prizes, including $2 off a pizza, large pizzas or free car washes for a year.

The customer who scratched to discover he held the one-millionth pizza won a Minnesota Vikings football promotion, including two tickets to a game, $250 cash and $200 in Pennington Bucks, which can be redeemed at the store.

Pizza sales also were sparked by the promotion, growing a whopping 18% in September alone. Even after the winning pizza sold on Sept. 17, pizza sales remained high and customers are still returning to the store to redeem their rewards.
 
Unique Marketing
Innovative marketing tactics, such as the one-millionth pizza promotion, help grow the Pennington stores’ relationship with the community.

To further reach the community, Barry participates in a local radio show every morning, where he talks about the stores’ specials and then participates in a pizza trivia game.

“People call into the live radio show and ask a trivia question and, between the radio announcer and myself, we try to answer the question. If we get it right they don’t win, but if we don’t know the answer, they get a free personal Hot Stuff pizza,” Barry said.

Pizza Trivia began 12 years ago, and developed because of Barry’s good working relationship with the radio, where he advertised many of the stores’ big events. The program has continued all these years due to demand. “The public likes it, and when something is going well, you don’t quit it. It’s a very popular show,” he said.

But Barry doesn’t stop there. Every month, the Pennington stores feature a new signature event.

Each October the stores offer a Halloween promotion. “Fourteen years ago, we came up with the idea to deliver breakfast pizzas and half gallon jugs of orange juice to businesses in town. So, a couple of us dressed up and made 40 pizzas and delivered them, and it was kind of fun. The next year we grew bigger. This year we delivered (a record) 280 large breakfast pizzas,” Barry said.

This year, four teams in full costume made deliveries and a kitchen full of employees produced pizzas. “My intention was to show the community  we’re serious about our pizza. When I started this 14 years ago, I thought, ‘we’re a gas station, who is going to come here for food?’ Fourteen years ago, could you imagine going to a gas station to get pizza?”

Creating a positive work environment is equally important to Barry. “I am just one small person in this company. I have employees who have been with me for a long time, and they have fun here. With the Halloween promotion, I involved all the employees and they just had fun, and one-millionth pizza was also a fun promotion for everybody,” Barry said.

Consider the Community
Involving the community also is a key component to the promotions Barry runs. A favorite annual promotion for the community is The Battle of The Dogs, which the two stores host in June, competing against each other to sell the most brats in three hours.

Other promotions involve the Relay for Life to help fight cancer, for which the stores also host cookouts; and a promotion where the high school football team sells coupon booklets for the car wash to raise  funds.

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