Episode 2: Customization and Personalization, the Keys to Slab Pizza's Success with Andy Gartz

Episode 2: Customization and Personalization, the Keys to Slab Pizza's Success with Andy Gartz

May 9, 2024

Summary


Andy Gartz, founder of Slab Pizza, shares the origin story of his successful pizzeria and the strategies he used to build a cult-like following. The key to Slab's success was focusing on high-quality pizza and letting the product speak for itself. They didn't rely on traditional restaurant marketing methods but instead relied on word-of-mouth and customer referrals. They created a customizable pizza experience, allowing customers to choose their own toppings and flavors. They also named pizzas after customers, creating a sense of ownership and loyalty. Slab's growth has presented challenges in maintaining the same level of care and consistency, but they are actively working on building their brand through social media and loyalty programs.

Takeaways

  • Focus on creating a high-quality product that speaks for itself.

  • Encourage word-of-mouth and customer referrals by providing a unique and customizable pizza experience.

  • Create a sense of ownership and loyalty by naming pizzas after customers.

  • Maintain consistency and care as you grow and expand.

  • Utilize social media and loyalty programs to build your brand.

Transcript

Shane Murphy (00:01.542)
Hey welcome back everyone. Today we have Andy Gartz. He's the founder and operator of Slab Pizza, a four unit pizzeria that's super famous for its massive slices of pizza and incredible variety of flavors. Andy, you'll probably talk to this, but my last count I think you had like 30 to 40 different flavors on the menu. And Andy's run several different restaurant concepts through the years, but he's been running Slab for nearly 15 years now.
And Andy, we're super excited to have you on today. Thanks for joining us.

Andy (00:34.331)
It's great to be here, thank you.

Shane Murphy (00:36.63)
Now maybe before we just dive into all the juicy details, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and the origin story of Slab?

Andy (00:48.467)
Sure. So I studied at BYU and couldn't wait to leave, but I don't know, through a winding path, I ended up back here trying to start my own business. So we lived in Washington and I worked at a semiconductor company for 11 years and I went to business school at the University of Chicago in the middle of that. And Sitting in a cubicle, I finally thought of a business idea that I thought was good enough to quit my job over. And so I did, and I moved to Utah because it was the best and easiest place to start what I was starting. And then nine months later, I started a restaurant instead, because my idea wasn't very good. But that's a whole nother story. But we...

I was looking for jobs and I was just driving around one day and I saw this little place at the bottom of Campus Plaza apartment buildings right off campus at BYU and talked my wife into using the remaining money that we had left to start a little cafe. And so we started a restaurant.

Um, we started our first restaurant that was an Asian cafe and it costs $15,000, which, you know, it's already in thinking back to what we did. It's, it's already insane, but we, we did that. We, we ran that for six or seven months and opened up a second place. And, um, and then slab, uh,

The second place was going fairly well, and I had pretty much murdered my first cafe opening the second place, because I was just spread too thin, and we didn't know what we were doing. But I was looking to get out of my lease in Campus Plaza, and someone came in looking at the space, and he said that he was planning on opening up a pizza place.

Andy (03:13.103)
And I just thought quietly to myself that sounded like a really good idea. And I waited for him to say no and that he wasn't interested in my space. And then I had... There was a guy, Eric Buehler, who had moved in across the street from me in Provo. And he had a pizza oven. And he was waiting to go to...

BYU business school the next fall and so I just asked him if he wanted to open up a pizza place together in the meantime before he started school and so we did. We started with his pizza oven that he bought for $2 at an auction in Ohio and he learned he...

He would unplug his dryer and plug in his pizza oven at his home in West Virginia before they moved to Utah and he would make these 20 inch pizzas. That's how we started. Everything was used, everything was super cheap. We had a really small space. We had four tables. But we...

You know, and at the time we had a small menu. We only had, I think our original menu was eight or nine flavors. But we just, we started and it was, it was a really slow build for about five years. There was just, the slope of our, the slope of our growth was really slow and steady for like five years. And...

And I closed my other restaurant probably a year into, maybe not even, I can't even remember when I closed, but probably a year after Slab opened because you could just, you could feel what was going to happen, even though it hadn't happened yet. You could feel what was gonna happen. So we had faith that it was going to. And that's how we started.

Shane Murphy (05:29.194)

And did it start with the slab, the slab concept? And it actually might be good to explain for the listener, like what is a slab? Because it's a unique model.

Andy (05:34.168)

Yes.

Andy (05:38.795)

So we only have, we have one size of pizza. It's a 20 inch pizza and we sell quarters of that pizza. So a quarter of a pizza is a slab. And so Eric had always made pizzas that big because that's how big his oven was. And he was usually feeding a lot of people. So you just maximize your space, right? So he'd already.

Shane Murphy (06:00.046)

The beauty of a constraint.

Andy (06:01.911)

Yeah, so the slot in the oven is 22 inches wide, so you make a 20-inch pizza, right? So.

Andy (06:14.585)

So the idea for selling quarters came, when I was in business school, I worked for one of my professors during my summertime. And he had an office in the loop in Chicago. And I was a poor college kid, right? So I would...

there was a pizza place underneath the L tracks right down at the bottom of our building. And they close, I can't remember what time they close, they probably close at 1.30 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but for the last half an hour they would just try to get rid of everything that they had made for lunch. And they made big pizzas and they sold slices. And I remember going down and being able to buy a slice of pizza for...

a couple dollars and I just remember being served on a paper, on a standard paper plate and all three corners of the triangle of the slice were like hanging off the edges. And I just remember thinking how cool that was. And so we, so we just, you know, we cut a pizza in fourth and decided we could sell quarters of it and that we were smart enough to put different sauce on each of the quarters and we could, you know, and uh,

My wife loves packaging, so she had the idea to put it on a piece of paper instead of a paper plate. And so, you know, we've been doing exactly the same thing for 15 years almost. Yeah.

Shane Murphy (07:48.674)

amazing. And so you were at that point where, hey, the growth was kind of was happening. You could feel that something great was about to happen. It was kind of slow at first, but you kind of had that feeling that we're on to something. From my perspective, I got introduced to Slab when I moved out to Provo, Utah back in 2011. And I think at the time there was just that.

that one location right off of BYU's campus. And I've been able to watch the brand grow and develop through the years. And something that I noticed right from the start was Slab had somewhat of a cult-like following where like people would, some people would go there every week, which isn't common for a pizza place, but they're going there every week, sometimes multiple times in a week. And like the number of flavors that you had tried was almost like this badge of honor that people had.

Now, I guess how did you go about like building that audience and going from that beginning where, hey, we're kind of just building this thing, we have the one pizza oven, we're figuring it out, you know, everything's starting super cheap. How'd you go about building that brand and that audience?

Andy (09:05.603)

So there's, I've been thinking a lot about this the last couple days, just preparing for this. And there are things that we did intentionally that worked really well. And there are things that we got lucky on. And it's a combination of both those things. You know, a lot of the things were intentional because, you know, I, in the previous 12 months, I had already opened two other restaurants, right? And so.

So I paid a lot of tuition doing those, right? And you know, we joke in our family that, I didn't see my kids for like three years because we were just, or my kids would come and do their math homework in the back of the restaurant. So, but.

Andy (09:55.823)

We knew, we had this belief that a superior product or a high value product, like a high quality product would sell itself. And so we didn't need to, we weren't gonna spend money on advertising or coupons or discounts or mailers or whatever, right? We were gonna spend money.

on our ingredients. And so the very first time that we, you know, we met with Nicholas, our food supplier, and they, this guy Neil was awesome. He had run pizza places before. He's just wise. And he brought, he just brought us samples of all the stuff that he thought we should try. And he didn't say anything.

He just said, okay, here's five different pepperonis, and we try them all, and whatever tasted the best is what we used. We didn't ask what the price was, we just said, this is the best, and he brought different cheeses, and Neil told me later, he's like, I was amazed that everything you guys chose was actually the best. And some of it was the most expensive, right? I mean, we bought the most expensive cheese for a long time.

We've always said that our, you know, that's our marketing budget. So we, we had this belief that, that the, and I still have this belief that the, the highest

quality marketing you can do is your customers doing it for you and so we had a message that was That people could spread easily right I had great pizza It's easy that sells anyone right? It should right if it doesn't if it doesn't I don't you know then that customer is not for me but I had great pizza you should come and try it is

Andy (12:11.507)

is the only marketing that we needed. And so that's what we saw and from the very beginning you would see people coming every week a few times a week. I mean we've I have I have customers that have come.

at least three times a week for 14 years, right? And it's great, and I know like I'm friends with most of them, right? And I love going to my Provo store because it's like a reunion every time I'm there, right? And so you could see this happening. And as we, so some of the lucky things were,

our location was not traditionally a good location. It's actually a really poor location. There's no parking. It's in the basement of a 70-year-old apartment building. It's just, it's weird. Nobody's coming there on accident, okay? Everybody's coming because they're coming to Slab. But because it's that, what we didn't calculate was that Slab

coming to Slab and finding it felt like a discovery, right? It felt like you were finding something special that nobody else knew about because it's not obvious. And so the other thing that happened was that, Eric and I were like, this is what we were doing, right? So we were there. I mean, we were there every day, right? And...

this was how we were supporting our families. Like this is the only thing that we did. And we had...

Andy (14:01.851)

And we had the, I don't know if we had patience because we were patient or because we had to be, but we like, you know, this is what we did and this is like, we were there every day and you know, we were, we didn't have a fancy ordering system so we had a piece of paper and we wrote people's names down and that's, we didn't have numbers, like I mean for a couple of years we didn't have numbers so we just write somebody's name down. And so nobody was number two or number seven, they were, you know, they were Mark or they were.

David or they were whoever, right? And so we got to know people and people liked, you know, we didn't spend money on being fancy, right? We just wanted to be clean and simple and have great pizza, and have pizza as good as we could make it. And so as people kept coming back and we started playing with different flavors and we started, you know, people would come in with special orders.

there's names on our menu of people back in 2010 or 2011 that would just come in and order, you know, there's a Carlin, it's just extra pepperoni and extra cheese, but Carlin came in two or three times a week and he would call ahead and he said, I want extra pepperoni and extra cheese, and it's just easier to write down Carlin on our piece of paper and make that. So that's just what got put on the menu, right? And so like all of these things just happened like that. And so.

So when names started going up on the menu, then people start getting excited about trying to come up with like the next thing that is gonna make the menu, right? And not a lot of them did, but some of the ones that were worthy made it, right?

Shane Murphy (15:48.938)

Yeah. No, I absolutely love that. And you were engaging that audience in a unique way where, hey, you're coming, you're making these requests. Guess what? I put Karlin on the menu and other people catch on to that as time goes on. Like, Karlin, I'm sure Karlin went and told his friends, like, hey, slab named a pizza after me. Check this out. And they all go and they all get the Karlin. And that starts.

Andy (16:13.135)

Right.

Shane Murphy (16:16.618)

that word of mouth buzz that is so crucial to brand building. And I look at your menu and I can probably pick out a few. Like there's the, I don't remember, like the CJing Pear or something like that where you're like, oh, that's somebody's name. That's somebody's name. And eventually you just wanna try it. Especially if you've tried multiple and you're like, oh, these are really unique, really good. Like I can't get this at a Domino's. I can't get this at...

Andy (16:20.593)

Yeah.

Shane Murphy (16:46.578)

a classic pizzeria, this is something special and unique for an experience. And yeah, like it's a massive pizza with really good ingredients served on parchment paper. And it's awesome.

Andy (16:59.459)

Right, right. So, and that's the thing is like, the other lucky thing was we realized over, you know, over the first couple of years that the fact that we were selling quarters and the fact that we started to have more and more flavors was that we were turning into a very customizable pizza shop. So it was a different experience. And this was before, this is, right.

I think the super customizable pizzas like, you know, Pizzeria Lamone was started I think right after Slab. And none of these copied, none of these were copying Slab by any means, like we weren't that influential at all. But the chains that would pop up like Blaze and Mod and all these places where you basically go down the line and you choose all your toppings and they throw it in the oven for you. And like that's...

That's like personalized, customized pizza. And we discovered that we were turning into that, right? Like that if you were a mom and you were sick of eating cheese pizza because your kids don't know how to eat, you could come in and you could get salad on top of your pizza and your kids could get cheese and everyone's happy. And four friends can come in and you don't all have to agree, like everybody just gets what they want. And if you wanna share, you can share. But.

Um, yeah, so CJ was like the first big push of our business was, uh, CJ was an influencer before they were called influencers and she, she wasn't, she was a neighbor and a good friend and, uh, she posted about us and like, she had, she had a huge following of people and we just exploded or we just like jumped, jumped overnight. And I wanted to tell one story. Um,

about naming. So in the early days we had a whiteboard where we would put new pizzas that we were experimenting with or things that were going to go on the menu when we printed a menu the next time. And I was working, I was by myself, it was one afternoon and this kid named Austin Baird came in and he was a BYU student. I think he later went to

Andy (19:24.899)

He was a really cool kid, but he wasn't obviously cool, right? Like he was super cool when you got to know him, and he wasn't like, I use this, this is my number one training story for all of my employees. So Austin came in and he opened up the door, he was like super excited, he's like, I got it. And he like just started naming off ingredients, like here's the sauce, barbecue sauce, chicken.

bacon, green chilies, egg, parmesan. I'm like, all right, I'll go make it for you. And so normally when people would come in and they'd be all excited about a flavor and they'd throw something out and we'd write it down and we'd test it out a few times and see if we liked it and then usually we'd just call it after them if they came in but we wouldn't put it up on the board. But Austin came in all excited.

my mind works in flavors and I knew that was awesome. So I went and made it, I put it in the oven, and then I went over to the whiteboard, and while it was cooking, I wrote the Austin and what was on it. So it was on the board, even before it came out of the oven. And yeah, Austin's Instagram profile still says, I have a pizza named after me. And the influence that, just his influence

Shane Murphy (20:39.659)

fascinating.

Andy (20:53.871)

the number of people that he...

that he told about Slab that became our customers and that have been customers for a decade plus. I mean, I've sold at least $750,000 of pizza just because of Austin. I mean, at least. It's probably over a million dollars that I could tie just to that one person. And the fact that the first time he came in, he had good pizza.

And the second and third times he came in, he had good pizza as well. So we've been like, our training story is that every single slab we make matters. And it doesn't matter who walks in, like that piece of pizza matters a lot because this is our brand, right? Like we are trying to have the best pizza we can make every single time.

whether you're there for the first time or were there, whether you're there for the thousandth time.

Shane Murphy (22:04.994)

Yeah, it's fascinating. Cause there, one thing, there was a moment where this really clicked for me about how precious Slabs brand was because you were using our text marketing system and you aren't the classic pizzeria. You don't discount your product. You don't, like you focus on the quality and the brand. And I remember we ran this text marketing campaign together where it was like, hey, join to...

to get on the list to hear about the secret flavors. And people were signing up for this text club in the droves because they wanted to be on the list to hear about the new flavor that Andy and the team was gonna come up with. And every time a text went out, you're like, I don't know if I have enough ingredients because people are coming in and it was that branding of the flavor. And it...

Andy (22:38.096)

Right.

Andy (22:46.215)

out.

Shane Murphy (23:01.29)

It's the stories of the Austen's, it's the story of the sea jains, it's the story of the people who have, you know, helped you to create these really fabulous like flavors and experiences and then tell the world. That word of mouth is really hard to replicate, but you've done that at scale and taken it from even a single unit to like four units and every slab mattering really matters.

Andy (23:10.797)

Mm.

Shane Murphy (23:31.274)

Because if you don't have a good business under the hood, no amount of marketing will save you. If you don't care about your customers, if you don't build a relationship, if you don't have high quality product, like marketing doesn't help. It just amplifies.

Andy (23:31.589)

Yeah.

Andy (23:44.771)

Right. Yeah, and it's just so, like it's, and that's been one of the one of the hardest things about growing is maintaining that care, right? And it's just, it's really difficult, like.

Obviously our goal, our belief is that every single slab matters and our goal is that every single slab is as great as we can make it. But, you know, reality is that, like...

every single slab isn't awesome, right? Sometimes they aren't, and sometimes somebody burns a pizza and they don't notice, or they're too busy to quality control themselves, you know? And so, mistakes happen, we put, you know, we read the screen wrong and we put stuff on it that it's not supposed to be in, like, you know, so, I mean, it's a restaurant, so lots of, you know, things aren't always as...

as great as we want them to be but we have that we have that goal and we have that aim to be to be Consistent and so we're trying we're trying to be I taught this word in ending this class lesson worse. We're striving to be as good as we can be right, but um But it's really difficult, especially as you know as you grow and um

and uh...

Andy (25:20.851)

As you grow and get spread thinner like you just can't like you know you can't you can't I don't have the time to be there for every single pizza anymore, so that's the challenges of Of getting of getting bigger is maintaining the feel of a maintaining the feel of a of a tiny little four-table shop in the in the basement of an apartment building is really tough to replicate You know so

That's a struggle, but we have some good employees that have been with us for a long time, so hopefully we're doing well.

Shane Murphy (26:00.91)

That's fabulous. And so you've talked today about a few different principles, the principle of having really high quality product and focusing on that being the core so that as people come in over and over again, they tell people about how great it is. You've even touched on, you know, there was that moment where, you know, CJ was posting and that helped you to blow up and kind of leverage that influencer audience.

You named pizzas after people and they started telling their friends that led to, you know, Austin himself helped to produce more than a million dollars worth of pizza from that experience and beyond. Are there any other core moments or pieces of advice that helped you to expand that word of mouth as you built and scaled Slab Pizza?

Andy (26:53.254)

Thank you.

So...

Andy (27:00.159)

This is a tricky subject for me, if I'm being honest, because one, I really do believe in this strategy, but I also know that I'm not good at traditional marketing. So...

Andy (27:18.731)

We have tried lots of things. We've sporadically been on Instagram and social media. We're trying to be more consistent and better at that. We actually have employees that are responsible for that now. But that's only been a month or two. So we're trying to do more things to build. But I mean we've...

It's.

Andy (27:52.741)

Uh... It's-

Andy (27:58.999)

It's difficult for me because I'm just not, I'm not great at marketing. And so, it's hard for me to find things that I can track, right? That I have data. So like, you know, I've, you know, we've donated to schools, we, you know, we donate to the football team and they put our banner up at the field and like, I can't tell you whether that works or not. My gut feeling is that it probably doesn't.

Okay, it's a nice thing to do, but like, you know, I don't know that that, I don't know that those kinds of things actually drive sales. And maybe, I was listening to, I was listening to the first episode of your podcast, and they were talking, he was talking about, ah, what was the method where you're hitting somebody like a few times, and we, like, we would always talk about touches, right? So like.

You just want to, you just need to be like maybe a banner at the football field isn't going to bring someone straight from the game to your shop, but maybe that's one of the 10 touches that they needed to bring them when they, when they say let's, let's go get some food. Right. So it is, um, that's something that, um, as things, as I got stressed thin and things got operationally more difficult and like, you know, COVID and just like all the

you know, all the mess and just operational messes that we're dealing with, like I just didn't, we didn't focus at all about having those touches out. And so it's something that we're actively working on now. And so we're trying to be, we have a loyalty program that you helped us start, right? We can, you know, we have.

a big email list, we have a decent-ish following on Instagram that we're trying to build and Facebook, and so we're trying to be consistent, and so that we're at least on people's minds more than we are, than we have been.

Shane Murphy (30:21.61)

And what I can say is, you know, I've been a customer for, you know, well more than a decade now. And one of the most consistent things I've experienced from Slab is high quality product. You know, it's always a good experience in the store. Even when there's a long line, like there's quality. We know you care about us as customers. And it's such a novel pizza experience.

that it keeps, it's kept me and my family coming back year after year after year after year. And I've loved watching your brand grow and it's just been awesome. Thank you for sharing your story with everyone today and I'm excited to keep being a customer for decades to come.

Andy (31:04.869)

Welcome.

Andy (31:09.955)

Yeah, no, it's great. We've made, just in the last year, we have, like operationally, we've done a lot of things that have really helped position us to be able to do really cool things. So we've switched our POS system and we're on a platform that really allows us to, that has a lot of tools that we're gonna employ. And I still get to invent new flavors. So we're gonna have...

We're gonna try to scale our menu down just a little bit because it's, I don't know how many flavors we have. It's an embarrassingly big number of flavors and it's really intimidating to people that come in and have to make a decision. So we're gonna try scaling our menu down a little bit but having seasonal things and monthly specials and I have, like the best pizza I have made in a long time was...

is gonna be a flavor of the month soon. A supplier brought me brisket burnt ends. And so I made a Thai chicken pizza and took off the chicken and put on burnt ends and it's a Thai burnt end pizza. It's amazing. It's the best thing I've made in a long time. So yeah, there's still like so many things to, that,

Shane Murphy (32:32.418)

excited to try it.

Andy (32:39.447)

that we're working on and that's the great thing about going into the shop is like, it's a place where you're never satisfied with where you're at and there's always things to work on and things to improve and things to make better and it's always a challenge. So it's fun.

Shane Murphy (33:00.518)

Andy, thanks for coming on the podcast today and sharing the story. This has been awesome. Have some golden nuggets that a lot of people are gonna pull out of this. So thank you.

Andy (33:02.619)

You're welcome.

Andy (33:08.731)

Great, you're welcome, thank you.


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