Talking about Your Pie with founder Drew French and franchise owner Mike Sims
1. Tell us about Your Pie.
We chose the name Your Pie to signify the art of making pizza. Typically when you go into a pizza place and split a large pizza for a family of 4 you end up getting half and half and somebody's not happy and has to pick the jalapeños off, or they wish they had jalapeños. We decided to put the decision making into the customer's hands and called it Your Pie. We specialize in 10" personal sized pizzas. We also do bread bowl salads and panini, but the majority of our business is people coming in and building their own pies.
…are all the pizzas 10"?
We do have a kid's size which is 6", but the adult pizzas are all 10".
2. Besides the size of your pizzas, what else is special about Your Pie?
Because we're called Your Pie we have a lot of options. We have 3 dough choices - white, whole wheat and gluten free, which is a rice based dough. We have 8 sauces - marinara, basil pesto, sun dried tomato pesto, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, ranchy marinara, extra virgin olive oil and spicy Thai. We have 9 cheeses - anything from mozzarella to gorgonzola. Then we have more than 40 fresh ingredients and premium meats. The combinations are limitless. If you're in the mood for barbecue you can have a barbecue pizza; if you're in the mood for Italian you can have a traditional Margarita style pizza; or if you're in the mood for something spicy, go for the Southern Heat which has jalapenos and our hot sauce.
3. Do you have pre-configured pizzas or are all pizzas done in a build-it-yourself style?
We do have some favorite combinations available on the menu in addition to the option to design your own pie. About 60% of the time people will build their own or modify a favorite. Because we have so many options it can be hard to know what makes for a good combination, so we include a number of favorites on our menu to help guide people. For example The Nat is a pie made with fresh basil pesto sauce, mozzarella, feta, grilled chicken, spinach and sun dried tomatoes. A lot of people will start with The Nat and add artichokes, or exchange sun dried tomatoes for onions - that sort of thing. What people like is the ability to choose.
4. With so many choices do you see people trying some wild combinations, or are most people still pretty traditional?
A little bit of both. Some people come in for a pepperoni pizza. We'll usually ask them if they've ever tried their pepperoni pizza with garlic or basil or something else to turn up the flavor a notch. Other people come in and get really excited and end up with 20 toppings and a combination they've never tried before. What makes Your Pie quite unique is that all the fresh veggies are included in the price so you can have as many as you'd like without having to spend $30. Vegetarians love it for that reason. We also offer vegan cheese, which is a non-dairy cheese and goes very well with our vegetarian options. In general we just try to embrace choice.
5. Do most people order a lot of items on their pizza?
Part of our Italian heritage is to emphasize the fresh tastes of the individual ingredients. We're starting with a thin Italian style crust. Using fewer really fresh ingredients is the best way to bring out the flavor of the dough and the sauce. Although you can put on a lot of ingredients we find that it's usually better to work with 3 or 4 toppings.
6. Why did you decide on the thin crust for your pizzas?
Drew: The idea originated while my wife Natalie and I were honeymooning in Italy in Ischia and we first fell in love with the Italian brick oven style of pizza. The brick ovens are conducive to an Italian style thin crust because they can cook the pizza really fast - in about 3-5 minutes, depending on the number of toppings. To me, the brick oven creates a much better flavor as well as a much better ambiance in the restaurant. Our brick ovens use an open flame, which is the reason the pizza cooks so fast and has its unique flavor. To me it just makes a much better tasting pizza.
7. Is the brick oven, thin style pizza a regional specialty in Italy or is it more widespread there?
Pizza was invented in Italy and the original ovens they used were based on hot stones that came out of a fire. Today you'll find the brick oven style throughout Italy, whether it's in Rome, Tuscany, Ischia or elsewhere. We're trying to stay true to the authentic Italian pizzas.
8. Can you tell us about some of your toppings?
Our most popular ingredients, maybe surprisingly, are pepperoni and mushrooms. But we do sell a lot of things like tofu - and you'd be surprised how many people get corn on their pizza, or pineapple. People get excited about being able to create their own and because they don't have to share it with anyone they're not afraid to get creative.
…do people really put tofu on their pizza?
They do! Because of our style a lot of vegetarians come to Your Pie. A lot like the tofu. We also have about 30 vegetables to choose from.
9. Do you have a dessert pizza? You have toppings like pecans, cranberries, and ricotta cheese.
We've toyed around with having a dessert pizza. We tried using ricotta with a little sugar for a base and then adding things like cranberries, but it was never exactly what we wanted it to be, so we currently don't have a dessert pizza on the menu. We do have gelato if people want dessert though.
10. Do many people order the gluten free pizza dough?
Yes, it's very popular. We brought it in when we started getting a lot of requests from customers who were gluten intolerant. Through the years it’s also become a popular way of eating. We sell about 70% of our gluten free dough to people who are gluten intolerant. They love it because most pizza places don't offer a gluten free option and many people have not been able to have pizza for years. The other 30% are people who are on a gluten free diet and it's just the way they want to eat.
11. Besides pizza, what other type of food does Your Pie offer?
We offer Panini, which are an Italian style sandwich. We take our same pizza dough, along with parmesan cheese, oregano and olive oil and make focacia bread out of it. Our Italian Panini is your traditional Italian sandwich with ham, salami, capicola, pepperoni, mozzarella, spinach, tomato, and a side of our house balsamic vinaigrette. What makes ours unique is that we cook them in our brick ovens, which gives them a special flavor.
12. Your bread bowl salad is very unique, can you tell us about it?
Drew: when I was originally designing the menu I thought about having a salad plate that would be made from the pizza dough. I wanted something different and thought that if we provided a sauce on the side that people could break the salad plate apart and eat it by dipping it in the sauce. When I was working with the oven manufacturers and describing my salad plate idea they suggested that it would be even better if I used a bowl. They built us a proprietary form so that we could shape the bowls and cook them in the brick ovens. I loved the idea. We use our white or whole-wheat pizza dough to make the bowls and cook them fresh to order. The salad goes in the bowl with a dipping sauce on the side. I wanted something different and unique and this was both.
13. Can you tell us about your gelato?
We get our gelato from a company out of Fort Walton Beach, FL. An Italian family who came to America and decided to create authentic Italian gelatos founded the company. Our original idea was to make our own gelato in-house but when we tasted theirs we decided the quality was so good that we wanted to feature theirs in our restaurants. We carry both sorbets, which are fat free, and gelatos, which are 93% fat free. We carry 14 flavors at a time; a number of them are seasonal and so we're constantly changing things and bringing in new flavors.
14. Do people come to Your Pie just to have a gelato?
They do. Our Fleming Island location is next to a movie theatre and we think a lot of people will drop by for a gelato when their movie is over.
15. You also feature craft beers. Is that a theme throughout all Your Pie locations?
Yes. We're not a traditional bar. For most people who want a drink, they're having 1 or 2 beers with their meal. Because of the quality of our food and the ingredients we use, we wanted that to carry over to the quality of our beers. Just as fast casual is a growth area for restaurants, craft beers are a growth area for beers, so there's a natural fit. A good craft beer really pairs well with our pizzas. For example, The Nat is a pizza with a strong flavor profile - we'd recommend pairing that with a good IPA like a Terrapin Hopsecutioner to help complement and balance out the flavors. In some markets we've invited our distributors to come in for a beer-pizza pairing night. We'll use those events to teach people about the different styles of beer we offer and how to select a pairing to go with a pizza of their choice. Our thinking is that if you're just having 1 or 2 beers you might as well make those really good beers.
16. Do most people eat in or take out?
About 80% will eat in, with the rest taking out.
17. Do you offer delivery?
The trend today is to utilize third party delivery services that are associated with restaurants. That's the route we'll eventually take. Unfortunately there's not an established delivery service in the Fleming Island area so we won't have delivery initially. The one exception is that we will provide delivery when we cater larger events such as business lunches.
18. Can you tell us about the Pie of the Month contest? Will it be available in your Jacksonville area restaurants?
It is offered in all our restaurants. It comes from the name of the restaurant: Your Pie. We really promote and appreciate when people build their own pizzas. What we've done is to develop a contest in which people go onto our website and submit their combination. Customers across all our stores are invited to vote on the “What’s Your Pie” contest. Every month a Pie of the Month is chosen and it becomes our specialty pie of the month for the entire company. The winner has their pizza featured in every store and they eat for free at Your Pie for the month when their pie is featured. They're also entered into our end of the year contest where all 12 monthly winners go head to head. The overall winner gets a trip to Ischia, Italy.
19. Do you have in-restaurant birthday parties for kids?
Yes, we're very family-friendly. We offer kids meals and gelatos, as well as supporting birthday parties. At our Fleming Island location and our future Tapestry Park location we're close to movie theaters and plan to offer promotions around birthday parties.
20. What are Spirit Nights?
Those are examples of events we put on to help support local community groups. Your Pie to play an active role in every community we serve. We host Spirit Nights as an opportunity for groups to fund-raise in our stores. A group simply invites their supporters to come out to a special event in our store and in turn, Your Pie donates a portion of the evening’s sales to the sponsoring group. It's a great way to support local community groups and it helps us introduce more people to what Your Pie is all about.
21. Drew, can you tell us more about how you went from discovering the Italian style pizza on your honeymoon to where you are today?
Drew: I actually had the idea for what we're calling down-the-line pizza before Italy but I could never figure out how to execute it because traditional pizza ovens take 20-30 minutes to cook a pizza. Even conveyor ovens still take too long. It was only when I went to Italy, experienced the culture, and saw the brick ovens that the light bulb went off.
22. You opened your first restaurant in Athens, GA. Why Athens?
Drew: I did my undergrad degree at college in Athens and Athens didn't scare me as much as larger markets like Atlanta. Also, my wife wanted to go to veterinarian school, so Athens made sense for both of us.
Athens is also a great test market for concepts. The local community is willing to try unique ideas, and there is a broad mix of customers from vegans to gluten-free and dairy free needs, to music and craft beer enthusiast. Our brand’s evolution has its roots in the eclectic community that Athens offers. We hope that this will carry over into our newest market here in Fleming Island.
23. When did you go from having your own store to franchising Your Pie?
Drew: I started my first store in April of 2008 and we opened our first franchise location in November of 2010.
24. How many stores are there today?
Drew: The Fleming Island location will be store number 17. We are excited to introduce our style of pizza to the Fleming Island community. We are confident that they will appreciate our commitment to quality and service.
25. Mike, what's your background?
Mike: I spent my career in the food industry, but on the other side, in the grocery industry. I started with Nabisco in Jacksonville and moved around the country with them. I came back to Jacksonville with a company called Acosta Sales & Marketing. In 1998 I joined Promo Depot, a promotions company my wife started on our kitchen table in 1996. Together we grew it into an in-store marketing company doing in-store promotions such as consumer contests, enter-to-win sweepstakes and those sorts of things. Our clients were companies such as Heinz, Clorox and Kingsford Charcoal. We did that for 12 years before selling our company back to Acosta. I went to work for Acosta until December of 2011. After that I had to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a lot of different things. I met Drew and Bucky Cook, the CEO of Your Pie. I knew a little about the restaurant business but never considered getting my own restaurant. It wasn't where my expertise was.
26. So, what attracted you to Your Pie?
Mike: A number of things. It was the product - I love the product. Drew's wife is from Italy and many of the Your Pie recipes come from her family in Italy - the sauces, salad dressings and things like that - they're not store bought - they're authentic recipes with a real connection to Italy. Second, and equal to that, is the people. I've always said that you can have the best product in the world and you can have the largest market share but if you don't have great people, you have nothing. I saw that genuinely in the people at Your Pie. From a pure business point of view, you heard Drew say that he opened his first store in 2008. Shortly thereafter the economy tanked. How many businesses, particularly in the restaurant industry, thrived when the economy took a nosedive? Well, Your Pie did. When you dig into that, across the industry, the only segment that showed growth in the recession was the fast casual segment. It's not fast food, and it's not full service. It's in between. People left the full service restaurants and found that they could give up a little service for almost half the price and still have a great meal with fresh, healthy alternatives. Your Pie was sitting in a great place. As we come out of the recession what we're finding, and not just for restaurants, but for other stores as well, is that people who never went to fast casual restaurants or to stores like Dollar General, are staying. They're staying because they're living on budgets now - even if they may or may not have to - and they've found out that's okay. You don't have to spend $100 for a meal on Wednesday night. You can spend $40 for a family of 4 and have as good a time along with great food. So those were the components that attracted me here. For me it's taking my skill set of bringing consumers to a retail location and hopefully getting them to try the product and getting them to become brand enthusiasts. I'm applying my skills and I'm hiring great people who know the restaurant business and we're linked up with a great chain, so we feel really good about it.
27. What are your plans for Your Pie?
Mike: We committed to open 8 stores in about a 3-year period. The first 4 are going to be in the North Florida area. We just signed a second lease in Tapestry Park in Southside. We hope to open that by the beginning of the summer.
28. Why did you pick Fleming Island for your first location?
Mike: We did a lot of research on the areas of town where we wanted to be. Fleming Island was one of the areas where we definitely wanted to locate a store. The demographics of the population are very favorable and there are a lot of people - both locally and from the surrounding areas. We like the Tapestry Park area in Jacksonville because Southpoint is such a hotbed for business. So, if people don't live near a Your Pie, chances are they'll work near a restaurant. We hope that way, if they try us for lunch, they'll become familiar with our brand. In that way the Tapestry Park location is very strategic for us. We're actively looking for 2 other locations in the Jacksonville area.
Once we have the North Florida locations in place we're going to look to Central Florida, in the Orlando area. We'll have at least 2 of our remaining 4 in the Orlando area. Beyond that we'll wait and see where our final 2 locations go. We may go to St. Augustine or Amelia Island. It will all depend on how things go. Our goal is to have 8 restaurants in the next 3 years. We think the geography we're in will support upwards of 30 or 35 stores over time. It's important for us to be patient enough to find the right locations but aggressive enough at the same time to move quickly when the right locations become available.
29. When did your Fleming Island location officially open?
On Friday, March 15th.
30. Anything else?
Just that we're excited to be here and are looking forward to being open.