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Easy as pie Featured

1:10pm EDT September 29, 2005
From the the phone call placing the order to the delivery of the pizza, every step is important to creating guest loyalty at Zeppe’s Pizzeria.

Joseph Ciresi, president and founder of Zeppe’s, wants his employees to answer the phone with a smile, his uniformed drivers to make deliveries in cars that are in good condition and his workers to be well-groomed and friendly.

“That’s the image, and that’s what we’re about. We pay a little bit more for our staff, but we expect a little more,” he says. “The good people really enjoy working at Zeppe’s.”

Ciresi continually reinforces the concept of providing world-class service among his 500 employees at Zeppe’s headquarters in Bedford Heights and the 28 Zeppe’s stores throughout Northeast Ohio.

He also trusts his management team — the directors of marketing, operations, finance and franchise development - to make vital corporate decisions. “You can’t expect someone to be world-class and then not allow them to make the decisions that are necessary,” he says. “I really believe in empowering the people around me to make the best decisions for our guests and for our staff.”

Smart Business spoke with Ciresi about how he retains top-quality franchisees and the challenges of growing his company.

How has franchising changed since you founded Zeppe’s in 1990?

We’ve gotten a much better understanding of franchising and the support that it takes to be successful as a franchisor.

Typically, you’re dealing with people who have an entrepreneurial feel but no real idea what to do with that, so they require a lot of support.

Also, when you’re dealing with entrepreneurs - like me- it’s hard to keep them corralled. You really have to work hard in getting them to buy into your system and to understand what your system’s all about and reminding them, ‘That’s why you came here. Let’s not get outside the box. Let’s follow the program, and it’ll work.’ It’s not uncommon for someone who’s relatively new in the business to think that there’s a better way of making our meatballs or a better sauce for less money, and it just doesn’t happen. We spec out the best products, and it’s just an educational thing. Sometimes they get ahead of themselves and get away from just following the program.

How do you deal with that?

Education. Really taking the time to make them understand why we use this product or why we use this cannery. I’m taking our advisory members to San Francisco, going down to the valley and meeting the farmers that grow our tomatoes. They’ll get to see our sauce go from the field to the jar.

It’s educating people about what makes us the best, even in our own franchise system. Making sure they understand that we go through a lot of pain to make sure we are the best in the business as far as quality.

If you talk to any salesman, there’s always a better and cheaper way of doing it, and if they could actually show me a better way of doing it for less money, I’m very interested, but most of the time, that’s not the case. Cutting corners somewhere is going to end up changing the product that you value.

What is your definition of a good franchisee?

It starts with the first time we meet them and making sure that they understand what it is to be part of a franchise. It’s amazing what some people’s concept of a franchise is and what reality is; it’s two different things.

We make they understand the whole process of the concept of a franchise. Really, what they’re doing is buying into a proven system, a successful way of doing business and taking care of their guests. Someone who doesn’t forget what that process is, doesn’t try to go outside of the box and buys into the system, they’re going to be successful.

We tell our franchisees and we tell our general managers: If you’re in this business to make money, you probably will not. If you’re in this business to take care of that guest, you will naturally build guest loyalty and build sales.

That’s true of any business: Take care of your customer.

How do you attract good franchisees?

To attract potential franchisees is relatively easy. We have some pretty high standards of what we’re looking for in a franchisee. It’s someone who understands that working for yourself and being in business for yourself has a lot of rewards but you also pay a lot of penalties.

It’s your business, so you have to make sure it runs. You have to make sure our guests are taken care of. It’s a seven-day-a-week business; there are no shortcuts. You have to go to work every day, build guest loyalty, and, in turn, you’ll build your sales.

Once you have good franchisees, how do you retain them?

Communication. We have an open-door policy. You could talk to anybody here. We have a great management team.

It’s communicating when you’re making a decision. The first question that we ask ourselves is, ‘How is it going to affect our guests?’ Then, getting the franchise community to understand that the first question is, ‘How’s that guest going to feel about this decision?’ If they really understand the system and what we do, every decision is made based on what our guests think of it. We try to do all the homework preparing for that.

Seventy-six percent of our guests come to us without a coupon. The industry standard is about 30 percent. Around the office, I refer to them as indirect competitors. What most of our indirect competitors sell is price. Very rarely do they say, ‘We have the best in the business’ or ‘We have world-class guest experience.’

How do you plan to grow your company into the future?

We’re looking at two basic ways of doing it. No. 1 is individual franchisees, which we’ve had a tremendous amount of success doing. Now we’re looking to attract multi-unit operators or area developers.

As we move into Columbus, Buffalo and some cities around us, for example, we’ll go there with two area developers who each have committed to six units, and then we, as a company, will commit to six units, so within that first year, in that Columbus market, we’ll have the presence of 15 to 20 units. We’ll have three or four different companies building that Zeppe’s brand.

We’ll also allocate advertising and marketing dollars, get involved in the communities and have an immediate presence as quickly as we can. We started Zeppe’s with one, then two and then three. It’s been a real challenge but we’ve learned a lot. We’re in a position now that we can grow much faster and much more effectively by using our past history.

HOW TO REACH: Zeppe’s, (800) 400-9114 or http://www.zeppes.com