Whether you’re in Naples, New York, or Napa Valley, you’re likely to find at least one pizza place per neighborhood because everyone loves pizza. There’s something magical in the combination of dough, sauce, and toppings that makes mouths water.
Because of that popularity, standing out amongst the competition can be difficult for a new restaurateur diving into the pizza business, unless you’re the only option on the block, like Perfect Pizza outside of San Diego.
Owner Latashia Robinson knew her neighborhood was a food desert, and its residents lacked high-quality, affordable, nutritious food options suitable for feeding large families. Rather than keep complaining about it, she decided to take action and fill up the hole, literally, by moving her business into the site of a pizza place that had recently gone out of business. Latashia wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as the previous business.
“We came in, took over the previous pizza store, and from day one, everyone was just so thankful that we were there and that we had consistency. The prior pizza restaurant, from what we’re told, there was no consistency. Some days they didn’t even have pizza.”
She knew she couldn’t just make average pizzas and fill up the food desert. She had to make healthy options for her customers, and make them affordable—two things missing from the neighborhood.
“And thus, I came up with—what’s the number one consumed food? It’s pizza. So there we go. And you can get salad. You can get vegan food. You can get cauliflower crust. Gluten free. Healthy choices are there. I want our communities to be healthy.”
She conquered the first rule of opening a small business by finding a hole in the market and filling it with quality products and services. But that wasn’t enough for Latashia. Brought up on the idea that the customer is always right, she set out to create a welcoming environment for her consumers and her staff, and it shows in the reviews on Yelp.
Reviewer Jennifer C. picked up on that as soon as she stopped into Perfect Pizza to get dinner for her kids. “I feel like when you find a new location for something that you’ve always loved—as in the form of pizza for me—it’s always great to have a company or a business location that has a team that welcomes you in like they’re your family. So it’s always good that it’s just part of the family being served some delicious food, and the connection that they had there was so great with us and my kids.”
Now that she has a culinary hit on her hands, Latashia is looking beyond her own success and helping others build their own businesses by franchising. This way, she continues to fill food deserts in communities and lift other small business owners up at the same time.
“In becoming a franchisor, I took that concept and said, Okay, well, I have a pizza restaurant now, how can I go further? How can I help other people? How can I create jobs? How can I create income for other people? What if I franchise? That opens the door for other women in particular so that you can create your own lifestyle and change your life.”
When business owners care about the community and the quality of their products, it shows, and it builds a loyal customer base that expands by word-of-mouth and positive reviews. That makes them an essential part of the community, and customers recognize that.
“I feel that mom-and-pop locations are the main quintessential parts of communities,” said Jennifer C. “People grow with them. They expand with them. They cry with them, obviously when we lose them. Mom and pops are the heart of the community, in my opinion… but mom and pops are, you know, mom and pops. They care for you. They take care of you. They become your family.”
Fill in the gaps you find with the right product and the best service, and the success will follow, along with hard work and some key takeaways from this episode:
Understand your demographics in your neighborhood, and make sure your products fill a need
Stand out from the crowded business landscape by offering excellent customer service
Make a solid business plan, execute it, and don’t give up
Build relationships with the community through philanthropic activity—whether it’s money, time, or goods donated
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Latashia and Jennifer, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 36 transcript Creating the perfect pizza experience
EMILY: Every business wants good customer reviews. Every customer wants a good experience. So what happens when both sides click? Or in some cases, when they don’t. From Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, this is Behind the Review.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur … and the reviewer … about the story and business lessons behind it.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
JENNIFER C.: I found Perfect Pizza from suggestions from my coworkers, and they suggested a great pizza place and I decided to go check it out.
So outside of the building, it does look like a little hole in the wall type of situation with some really cute graphics that they have for their pizza as their logo. When you walk into the store, it kind of reminds me of a little Caesar’s type of location where you walk up to a counter and you see warming stations there and then little cabinets and doors, things where they store the pizzas that are pre cooked and ready to be handed out.
The vibe seems like it’s a fun place to work. You can see part of the stations where the employees are making their pizzas on the right hand side and on the left they’re also prepping stuff on the other side. Like breadsticks, the delicious bread sticks. It seems like a fun place.
EMILY: That’s Jen telling me about Perfect Pizza. Let’s hear her review
JENNIFER C.: Went to this place for the first time last week. Got the meal package with a large pizza, breadsticks, and a soda. Definitely a great deal. We waited outside for our order and they brought it out to my car, which I didn’t expect.
The pizza was so fresh and my kids demolished it. The breadsticks reminded me of Hungry Hungry Howies or the Little Caesar’s breadsticks I would get at my high school. I couldn’t stop myself with those. Definitely going to order more pizza from here.
EMILY: Feeding a family is one of those constant necessities that on some nights just needs to be stress free. Jen asked her co-workers for guidance, and wound up eating delish breadsticks that took her back to memories of high school. And more importantly, her kids were full and happy.
Let’s hear how Perfect Pizza, and those breadsticks came to be.
LATASHIA: How it came to be is I was in the inner city and seeing that there were food deserts and seeing that there were not any healthy choices, for people that live there. So I decided, hey, instead of complaining about the problem, why don’t I solve the problem? And thus, I came up with, okay, what’s the number one, consumed food and it’s pizza. So there we go. And you can get salad. You can get vegan food, you can get cauliflower crust, gluten free. So healthy choices are there and that’s all about I want our communities to be healthy.
EMILY: With a passion for bringing healthy and affordable options to food deserts, Latashia also wanted to create a business model that could be replicated and opened in a variety of cities and communities across the globe. The particular location that Jen ate at is in San Diego. And the interesting element about this location to me was that it replaced another pizza business that hadn’t been serving the community very well.
LATASHIA: So I went into a community in north county, San Diego. There was a prior pizza restaurant there, from just talking to people in that neighborhood, it was poorly managed and eventually they closed. So I said, well, this will be the opportunity for us to get in and get the word out. So that’s exactly what we did.
We came in, took over the previous pizza store and from day one, everyone was just so thankful that we were there and that we had consistency. The prior pizza restaurant, from what we’re told, there was no consistency. Some days they didn’t even have pizza. So I was like, oh, okay. So customer service, it’s going to be our number one goal and consistency. And so that’s where we started and it’s been a blessing for us to be there even with COVID coming, we survived that as well. So I’m just very thankful that we did take the opportunity to come in and turn that store around.
EMILY: Latashia mentioned her number one goal is customer service. To fill a void in the previous business’s reputation, but more importantly to serve their customers how they deserve to be treated. And that stood out to Jen during her visit.
JENNIFER C.: Well, we ordered our food and I didn’t really plan on getting any food to be honest that day. But my children once they saw the food picture, they were like, I want pizza. I want bread sticks. So we ordered our food and of course we had a custom pizza, so it took a few extra minutes, so they didn’t have those ready to go.
Instead of waiting inside and making my kids sit there on the floor or just wait for it, we went out to the vehicle so that they can watch the movies in the van. So we were sitting out there in the air conditioning and I was about to walk back in and I turned around and I saw a gentleman walking towards me with my food. And I was like, oh my goodness, why are you coming out here? Don’t come out here. You guys stay inside. It’s hot out here. It was boiling that day, but I never would have expected any service like that from a little Caesar’s to carry out a pizza that I custom ordered. So it was just wonderful that they actually did that. And I didn’t have to get my kids back out of the vehicle to walk back in.
EMILY: Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference
LATASHIA: Well, I was brought up many, many years ago that the customer is always right. So I use that model all the time and then I want us to always exceed expectations. And so when we see stuff, even when I’m there, I’m the franchisor, you’re going to see me handing out pizzas. You’re going to see me walk them out to the car.
That little bit goes a long way. We never know, especially in the environment we’re in today with COVID and all these other things. There’s a lot on our mind. So just the little thing could just bring a smile, like walking the pizza to the car that might change someone’s entire day. You never know what someone else has going on in their mind.
So I just want it to be a pleasant experience. And anything that we can do to put a smile on your face, my team and staff know that’s what we do. If it’s walking it out, if it’s helped carrying it out or whatever we need to do, we never were in a different environment today. So just trying to bring smiles on their face so that they continue to come back and they say, well man, this time when I went, it was great customer service because as you know, in my role, I can go to a restaurant and it’d be okay, right? The food is okay. But if the customer service is outstanding, I’m going to keep going back because (of) the customer service. That’s what brings people back. Not necessarily, you have to have good food, but customer service is going to bring customers back time and time again.
EMILY: And Jen feels the same way. She loves finding and supporting businesses who treat their customers like family.
JENNIFER C.: So I feel like when you find a new location for something that you’ve always loved as in (the) form of pizza for me. That it’s always great to have a company or a business location that has a team that welcomes you in, like, they’re your family. So it’s always good that, you know, it’s just part of the family being served, some delicious food and the connection that they had there was so great with us and my kids.
EMILY: In addition to customer service, Latashia identifies preparation, consistency and community as other key pillars in Perfect Pizza’s success.
LATASHIA: Okay, so what we do for the lunchtime and dinner rush is we have pizzas ready to go. Some people come in and you’re at lunch and you only have 30 minutes for lunch, so you don’t want to wait 10, 15 minutes. So during our lunch rush and our dinner rush, we’ll have pepperoni pizza and cheese pizza ready to go. So when you come in, it takes less than 30 seconds.
In regard to our consistency, I have to admit, we use computers. It tells us from this time to this time, we typically sell X amount of pizza. So we just look at the demographics. We look at our sales from the previous week and we just make sure that during that lunchtime, in that dinner time, if you’re ordering cheese or pepperoni, you’re going to be in and out. When we have specialties, those are going to take about 10 or 15 minutes. Which still is a good time.
But we just want to make sure that when customers are running in, maybe they have kids soccer practice wanting to grab a pizza that they know, well, you know what? I can’t wait over here for 30 minutes, so I’ll go to Perfect Pizza because it’s lunchtime or it’s dinner time, and I know they have it ready. So we have repeat customers that come in, and we know them by name now, and sometimes they’ll call us, Hey, you know what? I have a soccer game. Can I get 10 of them? So we really got into the community very well and they’ve been great to us to help us as well.
EMILY: Not just a connection to the community, but giving back to the community. I asked Latashia to share where this calling to give back came from.
LATASHIA: My parents, they were the parents that everyone went to our house. They were the coaches, they were the track team coach, the softball coach. We always had tons and tons of people at our house in the community. So that’s just something that’s in me and I didn’t want to do the coaching aspect of it, but I said, okay, well, where is my niche? I still want to give back to the community. How do I do that? And like I said, in regard to the restaurant and also because you hear about in the inner city, kids being hungry and that hurts my heart. Like no one in America should be hungry. And so I wanted to make it available and affordable.
And so that’s why with my restaurant, you can feed a family of four for $20 and that was by design. It’s like, okay, for 20 bucks, I want a family of four to be able to eat and be full and that’s part of giving back to the community. I can’t give it for free, but I can make it as cheap as possible. And so that’s what I did in regard to that.
And then, like I said, with the non-profits, those are ones that immediately affect inner city neighborhoods. So I wanted to make sure that those people in those communities were taken care of. I wanted it in those communities, so there will be jobs and employment. I also wanted to make sure that whether you are in hard times or not with food stamp cards that they have, you can use your food stamp card to eat healthy. Because in most food deserts, there’s only liquor stores, you know, gas stations. So you’re getting all this food that’s already pre done, not cooked. At our store, you can get salad, you can get vegan food, you can get cauliflower crust, gluten free. So I’m trying. I want our communities to be healthy. And so part of doing my part is making healthy options, making jobs and even business ownership. The Sunday classes that I do, so that way, you can look at me and say, you know what, if she did it, I can do it. And plus, I’m going to help you. I’m going to train you. I’m going to tell you the ups and downs. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that in that community, we have homeowners, we have store owners, we have employees and all those great things.
EMILY: Latashia and her franchise are doing powerful work. But it started with one pizza shop. It started with consistency, customer service, and a desire to create affordable food options, jobs and access. Here she is sharing why she decided to franchise.
LATASHIA: In becoming a franchisor, I took that concept and said, okay, well, I have a pizza restaurant now, how can I go further? How can I help other people? How can I create jobs? How can I create income for other people? And I said, you know, what if I franchise that opens the door for other women in particular so that you can create your own lifestyle and change your life. So that’s what I started out. And it’s been hard work. Not going to say it’s been easy. It’s definitely some days I wake up, and I’m like, who told you to do this?
God leads my way and in this, I’m able to do what I want in other things, for example, with my whole franchise, I can dictate what we’re going to do, where we’re going to spend our money, how we’re going to market, how we’re going to network, what are we going to do to give back.
Because it’s important to give back to the community. So it’s nice to see that I can say, okay I believe in non-profit organizations. So all of our water, we give 5% back to nonprofit organizations every quarter. So those are things that I’m happy about so that I can sleep at night with a smile on my face, knowing that I’m giving back plus creating jobs, plus creating business owners.
Because as we know, job security is not so secure anymore. We seen that going back to COVID how many people lost their jobs, got laid off. And so people had to think outside of the box and with that with COVID I got seven more franchisees because they’re like, okay, my job just closed. It’s definitely been a challenge because I’m working with all new people that have never been in business before. So what I do is every Sunday I do business training. So that way, you know, the pros and the cons, it’s not going to be, you’re going to cry some of those nights. So it’s just, it’s been a life changing event for me.
I did not think to franchise when I first got it. And then I’m like, okay, people are asking me, I’m like, Hmm. Okay. That’s a way for me to even do more. And have more control and obviously create more income for my family. Because at this point, the key is generational wealth. Trying to pass this on to my grandkids and my great-grandkids at this point.
EMILY: Latashia has found this sweet spot where she can grow larger than a solo pizza shop and help others to open businesses of their own. By creating a playbook and empowering others to replicate it, Latashia doesn’t just employ 5 or 10 people, and feed families in a single neighborhood. She employs hundreds, and leads other community leaders who span cities nationwide.
She also does business coaching and classes on Sundays to help entrepreneurs. It’s important to her that they see what success can look like. That there is representation in who can be a successful entrepreneur. Let’s take a quick break
EMILY: And we’re back! Here’s Jen sharing a bit on what motivates her to review.
JENNIFER C.: Well, I know that small businesses around my area have been struggling with COVID and all the situations of shutdowns and they’ve been needing every helping point that someone can bring more customers in for them. So I feel like with a small business like that, they need all the help they can get. And I’ve lost more than a few of my favorite locations because of COVID. I figured anything I can do to help, we’ll help them.
I feel that mom and pop locations are the main quintessential parts of communities. People grow with them. They expand with them. They cry with them, obviously when we lose them. It’s mom and pops are the heart of the community, in my opinion, compared to like big box locations, like Costco or Walmart and the evil people of Amazon that I always order from.
But mom and pops are, you know, mom and pops. They care for you. They take care of you. They become your family.
EMILY: Jen makes so many great points. As consumers, sharing our experiences with businesses is a great way to support them! And locally owned and operated businesses are an integral part of communities so it’s important to stand by them any way that you can.
And that connection you feel to them, is a connection to the people. The customer service.
LATASHIA: Well, customer service is the only way to keep customers coming back. And not everyone, you can’t please a hundred people. If you have a hundred customers, you’re not going to please everyone. But when you do have a challenge and maybe an issue, we solve it, like, okay, you said that you didn’t like our pizza. Okay, well bring it back and we’ll do another one. How can we fix this?
And that’s always my thing. I don’t want to go back and forth with people on Yelp. If they say one thing wrong. Number one, I hope you get it right the first time. But if we don’t, I am the person who will go out of my way to correct it, because right now the social network, it ruins you or makes you better. It’s that simple, sometimes I wish we were back in the eighties prior to social networking, but now it’s like, if someone calls you, I didn’t get this, you’re like, oh my God, okay, come back in, let me fix it. And sometimes those people are not always telling the truth, but. Hey, okay, you said you got a pizza and you didn’t get it.
So it’s tough in this day and age being in any business because of social networking, you don’t want people to go on there and start making up situations. But the other thing is, you know, you’re going to get good reviews, it brings people in. Hopefully if it’s a bad review, I’ve already responded and refixed it in everybody that’s on Yelp, and all those things say, okay, She’s had 10 good ones and one bad one and she solved it. So maybe this person didn’t know what he was talking about, so that’s all we can do is try to give the best customer service that we possibly can because that’s where it begins and ends with customer service. Like I shared, as long as your food is decent, but it’s your customer service is great, they’re going to come back. And our food is good. I love it. I won’t eat pizza anywhere else.
EMILY: As someone who has dealt with her fair share of reviews, and by the way — I love her point about sheer volume — if you’re serving enough customers (and especially for my restaurants and retailers) you’re going to deal with a negative nancy or 2. But the important thing is responding. Reflecting your customer service practices where potential customers are learning more about you.
So how do you respond? Here are some great tips from Latashia.
LATASHIA: Very simple. Count to 10. I mean, and at the end of the day, it’s not an attack against you per se. You look at it, you have to take yourself out of the equation and be honest with yourself and with your store, is this person telling the truth? Are bathrooms dirty? Have I come in and the bathroom’s dirty?
Well, you have to look and see what the complaint is and then figure out if this is factual. And if it is, correct it, so then you’ll never have that issue again. So I read them sometimes I’m like, oh, this person really? But you know what? I go back and I actually look and say, take myself outside of it and look at it and say, okay, was our pizza on this day? Did we have a bad day? Was it hot? Was our dough? And you make an assessment that way. And in all things, whether it was a good review or bad review, you look at it and you see if it’s factual and if it’s not, you make sure that you do better. All we can do is learn from our mistakes. As long as my staff or my franchisees, as long as I don’t see the same mistake, five times in a row, it’s like, okay, I’m going to allow you to mess up. We’re human. So, okay, this person said today that his pepperoni’s were slid over. Okay. Why did that happen? Were we busy, we still need to slow down because it’s quality over quantity. So I just look at the reviews and I would tell anybody you’re going to get good ones. I mean, you’re happy when you get good ones. I mean, you’re happy, like, yes!
So when you get the bad ones, you remove yourself and fix the problem. If it is. But whatever it is, you have to acknowledge it because if you don’t acknowledge it, people are going to think that that’s true. So you have to get back on there. I’m sorry about that, please come back in. You know, you have to do that in this day and age.
EMILY: To close us out, here’s Latashia sharing advice for our business owner listeners. A quick note here that I think this financial advice is extremely valuable. But it’s also an opinion, on a topic that can be argued many ways. On this show even, we’ve had other entrepreneurs advice to start with your savings you have and work to grow without any loans or debt. These 2 options both have pros and cons, and different people feel differently. If you’re still making that decision for yourself and your business, get some more first hand experience from people on both sides. See what makes the most sense for you!
LATASHIA: So for all the would be, and people that want to be owners or self-employed, My motto is never give up. You do have to have a plan. I tell everyone whoever wants to get into their own business, never use your own money.
I hear people that always mortgage their homes or take their 401k. Please don’t do that. I always tell everybody there’s money out there, whether it’s grants. Whether there’s loans and have a solid business plan.
And if you have a solid business plan, don’t reinvent the wheel. Sometimes people want to reinvent the wheel. If you want to have a pizza restaurant, have a pizza restaurant. Don’t have a pizza restaurant with hamburgers fries. And all these other things in there, you do not have to reinvent the wheel. These places, McDonald’s been around forever. You don’t have to go into, I want to be better than McDonald’s. So I’m going to have chicken in my McDonald’s. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find one, find your niche, work hard, get grants, get loans, but never use your own money. And like I said, remember, don’t give up.
EMILY: And that concludes our episode! Be sure to subscribe so you get new episodes every Thursday. I hope you enjoyed it and were able to take a thing or two away to implement in your own life. Whether it’s a new idea that you can bring back to your business, or a fresh perspective on how to be a positive influence as a consumer, we share these stores to inspire and create more meaningful connections in your local community.