Mastering a Changing Craft
Staying nimble helps Oggi’s stay ahead of curve
Twenty-two years ago, it was an experiment.
And for each of the more than 192,000 hours since, it’s been a work in progress for George Hadjis.
These days, the co-founder of the Oggi’s pizza restaurant chain admits to being a little overwhelmed when considering exactly how far the entity he first signed onto with his brother, John, has come.
“When we first started, we thought we had our concept,” Hadjis says of the business, which has evolved into Oggi’s Pizza and Brewing Company and now employs several more generations of his family from its Southern California headquarters. “Then you see there are changes taking place and that it’s a very fluid market. That’s when you start realizing in practical terms just how much labor is involved in success.”
The two brothers opened the first restaurant in 1991 with an aim at attracting the typical go-to family unit – mom and dad, two kids – who’d go for the standard fare of a large pie with pepperoni, along with four drinks and the requisite free refills. Problem was, that was precisely the demographic impacted most by downward cycles in the economy, which necessitated mining for a new ideal customer.
The arrival of satellite dishes on the roof began paying off with a younger, sports-centric crowd, which also led to a hunger for the ingredient which ultimately changed the overall Oggi’s focus – craft beer.
“We struggled to raise the average spend per person in the restaurant, and we decided that we had to bring some other people in,” Hadjis says. Craft, micro-brewed beers were getting big at the time and they sold well, and we were getting a higher price for them. I remember thinking, ‘OK, maybe craft beer is the way to go.”
Adaptation and reinvention have become recurring themes as years have passed.
Hadjis says each of the now 16 restaurants in the Oggi’s family get a total design makeover every seven years to change out old themes and incorporate new ones that are the product of recurring monthly meetings with design and architecture partners, as well as focus groups with customers.
Also vital to establishing a brand-awareness foothold in the market were alliances with professional sports franchises, where Oggi’s became the “official pizza” of the San Diego Padres (MLB) and Chargers (NFL) and the Phoenix Coyotes (NHL), among others, and, in Hadjis’ words, “seared into customers’ minds the association of us with those teams.”
“We do research. We talk to our customers,” he says. “And the three things that are top of mind in terms of the roles we play are sports, brewhouse and pizza. Having the relationships with the teams in a high-octane market like this is like sprinkling lighter fluid on a fire.”
A BEER FOR EVERYONE
The transition from pizza restaurant to self-made beer entity has had a similar impact.
Though Hadjis concedes that the first few efforts at making in-house beers resulted in products that were “not really very good,” the repetition, research and experimentation has since yielded recurring success. Oggi’s is a frequent entrant – and a frequent award-winner – in local, regional and national beer competitions, including gold medals at the World Beer Cup, the Great American Beer Festival, the California State Fair and the Los Angeles County Fair.
Oggi’s makes eight traditional beers ranging between 4.8 percent (California Gold) and 8.5 percent (Double Up Double IPA) alcohol by volume, and its latest foray into brew-making has been the incorporation of barrel-aged beers, in which Oggi’s brand concoctions are aged for up to six months in brand-new, unused American oak whiskey and bourbon barrels.
The process allows the beers to pick up oaky, smoky vanilla, caramel or toffee flavors and a new set of the various aged beers will be rotated through each Oggi’s location every three months.
“We launched it four or five months ago through our restaurants,” says Tommy Hadjis, who handles the in-house Left Coast Brewery operation that both supplies Oggi’s restaurants and distributes its products through retail outlets in 28 states. “Using the new barrels brings more of the wood character into the beer and not so much the alcohol character. We want to show our customers that we’re still a craft brewery and we want to show that creative side.”
MANAGING THE HERD
The perpetual change that has been such a frequent and important element in the Oggi’s evolution isn’t always the easier thing to manage when it comes to a franchise-based operation and the different mindsets and goals that come with it. Unlike a corporate-owned operation that sends mandates from the top down, getting buy-in from franchisees involves more finesse, George Hadjis says.
“If a business is corporate owned, you simply recognize the change and then you make it across the board,” he says. “In our case, creating change is extremely difficult. They’re buying in to a concept and we oversee things to make they’re adhering to brand standards and things like that, but we’re not in there running the business on a day-to-day basis.”
The Oggi’s corporate chef visits each store location each month to consult on menu items, and each location undergoes an in-house health inspection – separate from those mandated by local regulatory bodies – to make sure standards are being kept high. Other guidelines for proprietary products are set from the top down as well, to maintain a uniform flavor profile.
On the beer side, each store is mandated to have the eight Oggi’s beers and two rotating seasonal varieties on tap, but the newest locations often have 26 taps available, so they’re free to rotate in 16 other beers as they see fit. Hadjis views the openness as both a chance for the signature beers to distinguish themselves by comparison, and a chance for the business to add to the bottom line.
“If you have more beers available, you’re going to sell more beer, and that’s a good thing for all of us,” he says. “We want them to have that broad spectrum, because that’s what the customers are there for.”
Going forward, while growth is both anticipated and desired, a chuckling Hadjis stops somewhere short of “coast-to-coast domination” as part of his latest five-year plan. In fact, he’s looking forward to stepping backward and letting more generations of the family take a more significant role.
A short-term aim is the startup and development of the Oggi’s Pizza Express “fast, casual” concept, in which locations will be opened to allow customers to choose from a selection of personal pizzas, wraps and salads at a flat price. Oggi’s beers will also be available.
A location is expected to open in the student union facility at San Diego State University in the spring.
“The cost to get the thing started is half the cost of a full store, but the renevues we’re expecting are not just half,” Hadjis says. “It’s a way to make us appealing to younger customers and bring in people outside of the main customers we’ve had for all these years. The way to do that is to take the concept and recreate it into something new.
“It’s a family business and we’re more interested in the legacy that we leave, because this is our thing. We created this and we’re very, very careful with how we carry it forward.”
For more information, please visit their website at: Oggie’s Pizza
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