A Slice of Empathy

First, it is only fitting – and, hopefully, not eye-rolling – that I request empathy of my fellow cohort members for my tardy post this week. I spent most of the past few days asleep and resting, home from work, afflicted by some unknown ailment from which I am only now recovering. I apologize for not routing my energies to my post before Wednesday to provide you all with more time for review and comment as all of you have done despite your own busy schedules.

One of my goals for this incubator is to convert PizzaPlex to worker ownership in 2020. The dependency upon which all conversion activities rests are improved financials. In this scenario, the exercise of showing empathy for people who buy from our competitors only makes for critical competitive analysis – so I welcome this activity with open arms.

Why People Who Eat Non-PizzaPlex Pizza Are Right

First, before I empathize with the non-PlexPeople, a word on PizzaPlex (ok, this part is actually very many words):

The mission of PizzaPlex L3C (low-profit LLC, a structure of incorporation in Michigan that – despite its name – does not mean the LLC is subject to low profit only, but that it can offer a social benefit along with striving for profit) is to serve delicious pizza while uplifting people and planet. We offer pay-it-forward programs where any individual can redeem a free pizza, food, or coffee – no questions asked. We scale this up for community organizations who need pizzas for their meetings or events. Our customers have helped us serve hundreds of pizza at no-cost to non-profits and Detroiters since opening in September 2017. Our entire restaurant reduces, reuses, and recycles, and is the second entity in the entire city to leverage a green infrastructure credit program with the water department. We compost all our organic scraps and even accept residents’ compostables in case they do not have access to composting. We throw out the equivalent of less than two residential bins of trash per month because we reuse, recycle, or compost the rest. These are some examples of our regard for people and planet.

So, back to the product: PIZZA. PizzaPlex is Detroit’s first and only pizzeria serving certified Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN). This means, the pizzeria applied for and received approval from a third-party entity known as the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) that the restaurant is preparing pizza in a centuries-old style from Naples, Italy, that uses specific ingredients (e.g. finely milled flour called 00 flour, certain types of tomatoes, cheese, and yeast, etc.) and employs very precise equipment and techniques for baking. We have an oven from Naples in the restaurant that blisters each pizza curst at nearly 800 degrees F for less than two minutes. Pizzas must be approx. 12” wide and have a softer, chewier dough compared to US-style pizza – making individual slice sales very difficult or infeasible.

Our head pizzaiuolo has worked in a pizzeria in Naples. Photos of my Neapolitan grandparents adorn our walls as an homage to everything they did to provide me with the opportunity to share the culture of Naples in Detroit. The AVPN president made me a personalized video indicating how proud he was that I representing Naples globally.

So, as the resident Neapolitan whose extended family still resides in Naples while operating a pizzeria throughout my childhood, VPN certification was a must for any pizza business I started. In the spirit of “seeing the other side,” I’ll quote Chicago’s Giordano’s pizzeria history of pizza to explain why, beyond the cultural familiarity of the food, Vera Pizza Napoletana holds significance related to the mission of our social enterprise, to make delicious food accessible to all:

Naples was a thriving port city, and the areas near the waterfront were crowded with the working class. These people, many of whom were quite poor, had few places to cook. They often heated large, flat stones to cook flatbread, then topped the bread with cheese, meat and other items. Because they had to hurry back to work, they folded the cooked flatbread up into a pocket and ate it later, or ate it as they walked. The very first pizzeria was founded in the year 1760 in Naples. Da Pietro pizzeria opened its doors in Naples to sell their inexpensive flatbread concoctions to hungry dock workers.

In 2017, Unesco designated the art of the pizzaiuolo, or pizza maker, world heritage status. “The pizzaiuolo craft has been handed down for generations, Unesco said, and encompasses the social ritual of songs, stories and gestures that takes place between pizza makers (‘pizzaiuoli’) and diners in working class Neapolitan neighbourhoods.”

For me, pizza is personal. Pizza represents access and the right of all people to high quality, delicious food. I’m not naive to recognize classism in commerce. But I believe pizza is symbolic of a story that refuses to compromise quality for means. As a good Neapolitan, it’s a borderline irrational mantra.

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The competitor’s customer is right because…

  1. They don’t consider PizzaPlex pizza “pizza.” I spent paragraphs above explaining how “different” the VPN pizza is. A person in Detroit or the Detroit area familiar with pizza more commonly found in the US has many examples of pizza as it is traditionally known in this country, but – guess what – virtually no examples outside of PizzaPlex.* If a pizza customer is craving a pizza, what is the opportunity cost of trying something drastically different, and not at all obtaining what you expected? That can be high risk with such a notorious comfort food like pizza. I presume the majority of pizza-ingesting people in the Metro Detroit area would fall under this category.
  2. They are confused by PizzaPlex. Is this place a non-profit? (I’ve heard this question before in the restaurant.) Are you a charity? (Heard this one too.) I’m confused – where is the event? (Did I mention we are also a community event space?) Again, I spent paragraphs explaining our mission and the cultural importance of the food we prepare. To whom else does this matter? Is what we are doing clear? Or are we confusing people in our messaging?
  3. They have never heard of PizzaPlex. While we have some amazing regulars (thank you, dear, wonderful return customers!), we have been struggling with marketing and reaching new audiences. Am I demonstrating obliviousness by saying we might be a niche business?
  4. They don’t care about the bla bla bla acronyms and the Naples hoopla and the fancy imported ingredients. Try as we might to stress the mission, the affordability (our pizzas range from $5 to $14 for a full pie), that might not matter to someone interested in good food. Could we be alienating potential customers by celebrating what makes us different?
  5. They want a slice of pizza. We don’t sell individual slices.
  6. They want pepperoni. We don’t serve pepperoni. And when we start to explain that our spicy salame is close to pepperoni, would they like to try it? They check out. Don’t underestimate people’s love for pepperoni.
  7. They don’t like it. And when you only have occasion to try it once (literally) – it may be a hard sell to come back for it and give it another shot.
  8. They don’t want to travel to a specific neighborhood for pizza when they could access different styles of pizza much closer. We are in a neighborhood of Detroit and even our Grubhub delivery radius only goes so far.
  9. They have other pizzeria choices down the street from PizzaPlex in either direction. None of them are VPN-certified, but they may be a closer fit for that customer. Is our value proposition, our “edge,” strong enough to lure them away from their tried and true choice? Probably not.
  10. They can’t try our food during our open hours. We are open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 4 pm to 11 pm. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to be open during lunch hours or other times on the weekend. We might be missing a segment of potential customers as a result.

What am I missing? Why is the competitor’s customer right?

* The first and only other AVPN-certified pizzeria in Michigan is in the Metro Detroit area; however, this is about 30 – 40 min away from PizzaPlex

RS – My reflection for this post is delayed, yet, this marks one of the posts whose comments surprised me the most and with which I had to sit longest. The messages were straightforward, simple, and clear. I think what I was not expecting was the depth of perspective hearing about the business both from the eyes of those familiar and those out of state, less familiar with PizzaPlex. Reading others’ impressions of a venture that I feel is so intimate and personal always gives me pause.

I appreciated the warm response to the vision and commitment of the business. Knowing the CPA incubator includes kindred souls who are motivated first by equity and radical transformation of broken systems, I felt so affirmed that my (long) post communicated the PizzaPlex mission in a way that like-minded people could digest (pun intended and I’m not ashamed).

I also appreciated the very practical tips commenters provided. Yes to all of the above! I had considered the suggested ideas in passing before, but seeing them succinctly captured in writing is invaluable for me. This incubator reminds me how I tend to overwhelm myself unnecessarily; that if I take things one step at a time with the long-term goal in mind but not stopping me before I start, I can accomplish more than I expect.

4 thoughts on “A Slice of Empathy”

  1. I just checked out PizzaPlex on Yelp and hot damn! People love this place! I haven’t eaten dinner and I’m tempted to just hop in the car and get to PizzaPlex for a pie or a six before it closes. Congrats on forming such a beloved, community- and planet-aware establishment. That’s your full-time job, right? JK! But sounds like it could be!

    Did this process of getting in the head of your potential customers reveal anything new for you? What would PizzaPlex workers or co-founders think about this list? Would anything surprise them?

    While it seems like you’ve covered a lot of the bases in terms of the practical considerations of your potential customers, I notice I didn’t read anything about the quality of the service or ambiance (Yelpers think very highly of the service, btw). Any chance that might be a blind spot?

    If I may offer some unsolicited commentary – When I first heard about PizzaPlex, I did not imagine an establishment with certified authentic Naplese pizza. For me the name PizzaPlex evokes more of a fast and cheap pizza place that sells by the slice in a food court. The image I had in my head is very different from the the rave reviews on Yelp and the very specific, high-quality niche you describe above.


  2. Alessandra,

    I hope you are feeling better.

    Thank you for sharing the story of PizzaPlex. I love the overall concept of pizza and community.

    As I think about your question of why the competition’s customer is right, a few more questions come to mind. Do you all deliver? Are they part of your market segment? What other values do you think they have?

    What did you learn from this process? How did it make you feel? How could this process help PizzaPlex?


  3. Wow!! Your business sounds amazing — both the quality of the food and the ethos. Love it, love it, love it!! Thank you for sharing what your business is about.
    And no worries for the late posting. I congratulate you on taking care of yourself. Truly. I hope you are feeling better. Sometimes the body just demands rest.
    I think you did a great job of capturing why the non-PizzaPlex customer is right. Did the exercise give you any new Ah Ha’s? Did it cause you to want to make some changes?
    (Has the local press (or national press) done a story on PizzaPlex?)
    When I make it to Detroit some day, I will definitely be eating at PizzaPlex.


  4. Hello, friend! A few thoughts on your post:

    1. Thank you for providing context before diving into the minds of your non-customers. Very helpful 😉
    2. It sounds like your non-customers don’t get it. More specifically, they haven’t wrapped either their minds, hearts, or taste buds around:

    – The pizza.

    I commend your willingness to confront a truth that may be distressing to you both as a Neapolitan and a Neapolitan pizzaiuoli: your non-customer has certain expectations when she hears the word “pizza”. What you’re serving doesn’t meet her expectations. Going back to the article “Who—and What—Will Customers Become?” by Michael Schrage (https://www.di.net/articles/who-and-what-will-customers-become/), do you see opportunity to reframe this non-customer’s expectations? You set a bar that you want her to embrace. How do you make that bar seem worthwhile?

    If your bar is using”Old World” traditions which have been passed down from generation to generation (i.e., that your pizza is legit) and/or pizza made from the finest ingredients and techniques, how do you help people wrap their minds around that bar? How can you show them where you’re coming from? Through the way your space looks/feels? Through your logo? Through your tagline? Through Hint: As we discussed, a picture can say 1,000 words.

    If you’re a niche business, who are you currently speaking to? Who do you think you should be trying to speak to, given your “edge”? If your story and menu won’t appeal to the masses, what segments within the masses do you want to target? Based on what you know about your current customers, who do you consider “low hanging fruit” to get from non-customer to at least occasional customer?

    -The connection between the event space and the pizzeria.

    What are 1-2 things that you can say in your messaging that will help clarify the purpose and functionality of the event space vs. the purpose and functionality of the pizzeria? Your non-customer has barely wrapped her head around the idea that you’re a pizzeria. How do you convey that you are a pizzeria that also has an event space? Do you give the event space another name and market the restaurant and space separately (e.g., Republic Tavern (https://www.republictaverndetroit.com/about) Would it be effective for YOU? Do you give the event space a noticeably different decor/look so that people feel the difference in the spaces? Side note: Do you monetize the event space so that folks are paying at least a nominal fee, perhaps on a sliding scale basis/

    -The why.

    People-planet-pizza is one layer of narrative. It’s one way to frame who you are and help people understand your social mission.

    Authentic Neapolitan pizza is another layer of narrative. It’s one way to frame who you are and help people understand the ‘edge’ as relates directly to your pizza.

    For your non-customer, which of the layers is the missing link between her decision to eat at PizzaPlex vs. eating somewhere else? How do you approach marketing to bring in the non-customer who may be willing to “eat” your social mission? How do you approach marketing to bring in the non-customer who is a foodie or loves good food (preferably with rich heritage) and just wants good pizza?

    Final note: What about your mobile pizza oven, drinks, dessert, and merchandise? Are those ways to reach current non-customers who you will have a hard time getting in your door to eat a pizza? How do you leverage those assets? Also, if authenticity and heritage are part of your edge, is it possible to leverage that edge to create other profit-making opportunities (tastings, special dinners, etc.)?


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