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Women in Pizza: Diana Cline - A Rocky Road to Pizza Success

By Miriam Robinson

When Diana Cline meets people for the first time, she says she’s a chef and co-owns a restaurant called Diana’s Cucina & Lounge in Winnipeg. But Diana does much more. She is a columnist, international culinary competition winner, author, judge, consultant, and mother. Her journey to this point in her life has been anything but easy, and included being blind-sided by an international pizza chain, and closing her first restaurant. But, it’s been an interesting journey, and it has provided her with an education in the restaurant industry that has made her a sought-after expert.

Born to be Different

Diana was born an entrepreneur.  At the age of 11, she opened her first small business cleaning houses for family and neighbors. To her, entrepreneurship represented freedom. When it came time to attend university, Diana registered at the University of Manitoba in the computer science program. While she attended school, she worked 2 or 3 jobs simultaneously to support her tuition and lifestyle. One of these odd jobs was as a delivery driver for an international pizza chain.

Seizing an Opportunity in Pizza

While working at the pizza chain, she began to develop a curiosity about the pizza business, and met a man who felt the same. Unbeknownst to her, he would one day become her business partner and husband. After working for the store for some time, an opportunity to buy a franchise in the chain was extended to them. Diana considered her future in computer programming, and visualized a lonely desk in an isolated cubicle. She decided to postpone university, and together she and her partner made the life-changing decision to dive into the pizza business. 

It began with a handshake deal between her partner and the company—she admits that because of her gender, she was overlooked as an equal partner in the venture by the chain, and was not even included in the meeting. However, her partner discussed everything with her as an equal, and they made all their decisions jointly.

They were given a choice between three “dog stores” in different cities. A “dog store” is industry jargon for a restaurant that is not doing well. “The deal was that we would take over one of the stores, increase sales, agree on a price, and in 6 months we would buy the store.” So Diana and her partner set out to do just that.

Accepting the Challenge

They took over a store that was selling about $5,000 a week, which is fairly low by industry standards. For reference, at the time her partner was also managing a restaurant bringing in close to $16,000 a week. So, the next four months were spent implementing basic operational changes. They made some staffing alterations, and thoroughly cleaned the store, but because it was a chain, they were limited to only a few small changes.

After six months of running the restaurant, they had increased weekly sales to  $13,000 a week—more than doubling the sales since they started. Diana and her partner went back to the restaurant chain to agree on a purchasing price, since they had more than held up their end of the bargain. To their dismay, the company kept rescheduling their meetings, claiming that they were too busy.

However, within the company, corporate had plenty of time to brag about the unexpected success of the store. Although they were equal in their efforts and success, Diana’s partner was their “golden boy.” In weekly manager meetings, the chain would glorify him for doubling the weekly sales of the store in such a short period of time. “He was the golden boy that everyone wanted to beat,” Diana says proudly of their success. But when it came time to honour the purchase deal, the company remained unresponsive.

Blind-Sided by a Large Pizza Chain

Finally, after continued persistence from Diana and her partner, the company met with her partner and explained what the deal was. Again excluded, Diana recounts what her partner told her of the meeting dialogue. “When you took over the store, it was worth $80,000. It’s now worth $250,000. We can’t sell it to you.”

They were shocked. They had entered into a handshake deal, adhered to their end of the agreement, and had been operating on good faith. Now, they were seeing a new side to the pizza chain. The chain extended an opportunity to move to Churchill, Manitoba for a new store opening instead. “We had just purchased a house together in Winnipeg and were putting down roots”, Diana explains. “We had been operating under this handshake deal, thinking that we would be here for a while. Neither one of us had the ambition to move north.” Diana dug in her heels, and says she was soon branded as a “difficult woman,” which she jokes is not the first time. 

“We realized that this wasn’t our path. They showcased our success, but didn’t appreciate the work we did.” But Diana sees a bright side to the escapade: “Fortunately from this experience, we learned that we really liked the business, were able to do very well, and had proved to ourselves that we could successfully transform a dog store into a star store.” With that, they decided to venture out on their own.

Walking Away and Starting Over

They purchased a building and opened an independent pizzeria. “We both loved business, pizza, and delivery. We wanted to do all of those things again, but this time with a better product.” Diana first started as the chief trainer, training every new hire, and then transitioned to managing in the store. Before long, she could be found in the kitchen, stretching pizza dough and testing new ingredients. 

In the beginning, they dealt with many obstacles. Google maps hadn’t been invented yet, so drivers would get lost for 40 minutes trying to find their destination. Pay phones were used to call the store because cell phones were expensive.  A lot of technology was still in its infancy, so they relied on paper and books. But the worst part was that no one knew who they were, and why they were better than their competition.

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

“We had a dream,” Diana explains. “Everyone who has gone from a regular job to opening their own restaurant  has a dream that they are going to make wonderful food that people would be willing to crawl naked over broken glass to buy. It doesn’t work that way.” Diana says that when they first opened, there were over 20 different established pizza places just within their 25 minute delivery area—and they didn’t know anything about marketing.

“We started by looking at the menus of our competitors, set our prices the same, and created a logo and a name that we thought were perfect. I was armed with university textbooks full of case studies of Nike and Coke—big, established brands who have huge marketing budgets. Of course, their advice was not remotely helpful.” Diana and her then new husband focused on brand and image marketing. They quickly ran up a huge debt, and sales were not growing as fast as they had anticipated.

Saved by Marketing Cassette Tapes

“We had a strong team, loyal customers, and good food—all the essentials of a good business. But we were missing something.” Diana came across an ad for a marketing guru who sounded interesting, ordered a free cassette tape about his marketing theories, and started listening. “Everything made so much sense! I learned about how a small business should market differently, the importance of direct response marketing, direct mail, and more. I thought to myself, ‘Interesting. How can we implement that for our restaurant?’”

After a heated internal debate about allocating more money toward another initiative, Diana proposed that they try a test. “We started by testing ugly renegade marketing pieces using theories from the tapes. We immediately received a huge response!” Now Diana was convinced that the lessons from the cassettes were going to help. This is when she and her then husband found the pivotal piece of the puzzle—through a simple restaurant survey.

The Power of a Name

“We followed the steps on the cassette and conducted a blind survey, distributing it in shops around the area, and asking people to give opinions, specific to pizza, in exchange for the chance to win a gift certificate. We quickly found out that no one knew who we were!”

“At the time, our restaurant’s name was “Pizza Stop.” We had been so preoccupied with perfecting the logo (the marketing textbooks say it’s all about the logo), that we didn’t realize that it's your name that matters. Unfortunately for us, we were competing with 20 different pizza restaurants in the area who also had pizza as the dominant part of their name. Even our regular customers who filled out the survey didn’t even realize that we were the sponsors. We were astounded to learn that our loyal customers would refer us to friends, who would then accidentally arrive at a restaurant with a similar sounding name, and of course, the other place was horrible!” If it wasn’t for the insight that came from the restaurant survey, Diana and her partner might never have known how to turn their restaurant into a huge success.

Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria

They had to find a new name that was personal, memorable, and different. Diana had already elevated the quality of their pizzas by choosing only high quality ingredients, and felt that it was important to incorporate that into the name. They decided on “Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria.” She began education based marketing and changed all the signs and uniforms. She wrote monthly newsletters, and mailed them out to her database of just over 1000 households. She needed a customer management system, so she built her own database using her knowledge of computer programming from university, and made her own little functioning point of sale. As they grew, she soon upgraded her system and uploaded her database to the pizza-specific SpeedLine POS system. “This was a critical step in my path,” she says.

With the name change, new marketing strategy, and new POS, sales grew exponentially. People started to recommend that their friends “try Diana’s.” It was the key to their success.

Canada’s Pizza Queen

Shortly after this turning point, Diana was awarded Canada’s Best Pizza Chef 2005. She had entered Canadian Pizza magazine’s recipe contest for Canada’s Best Pizza Chef the previous year for fun. She spent some time brainstorming—what makes Canadian pizza different? Scanning her fridge, she noticed her then husband’s favorite beer, Moosehead, and decided to incorporate it into the pizza dough. This was the recipe that would go on to win the competition. The win exponentially increased exposure for the restaurant, and they became busier than ever.

From “Picky Eater” to a “Sophisticated Palate”

When she was young, a well meaning extended family member teased her for her peculiar taste, labeling her 'picky'. “Well, after I won my second international pizza chef award for Canada, that same individual said ‘okay, so you’re not picky—you just have sophisticated taste.”’ 

Closing Diana’s Gourmet Pizzeria

Diana and her husband continued running the restaurant, grew into a bigger location, and had a family together. Unfortunately, their relationship was beginning to change. Diana says she is grateful for the time they had together as business partners, and in growing a small pick-up and delivery business into a huge success. However, their chapter together had come to a close.

Her children were her top priority, and she realized that businesses will come and go, but being a mom is most important. When she closed, she didn’t know if she would be in the business again. “I remember locking up the store for the last time, and giving my fate up to a higher power.” She knew she was no longer going to be walking on the same path that she’d started on, but was ready to take confident steps on a fresh path toward what felt right. “I soon realized that it was not the end. It was just a transition.”

Rising From the Ashes

Diana put one foot in front of the other, and although it was a painful experience, she chose love over resentment. Within a few weeks of closing, she already had partnership offers for new ventures. “From the outside, people could only see my ashes,” she says, “but my ember was still glowing within, and I soon emerged from the ashes to rise up stronger.”

Six months after closing, Diana entered into a new business partnership, and opened a new restaurant in the same location called “Diana’s Cucina & Lounge.” Diana explains that through the experience she learned that “an ending is just another beginning. It’s not finite; you have to just continue on.”

Choosing Joy

Now, Diana is busy as a columnist, consultant, culinary judge, and author.  She works as a consultant to help people in the industry, and draws from her extensive expertise in everything from operational strategies, to recipe decisions. 

She even helps owners when they are having trouble delegating and stepping away from their business. She explains that it's healthy to have passions and interests, but if you’ve created a business that you have to dedicate 80 hours a week to, it has become a prison. To prevent burnout, she helps clients delegate and find a balance. “A pizzeria is not a business of one. You need a good team. It’s important to delegate tasks you don’t like to people who do like them, and are strong where you are weak.” 

When she’s not consulting, Diana is writing a column for Canadian Pizza magazine, or judging international pizza competitions. Astonishingly, she’s also found time to author a cookbook called “Passionate About Pizza,” and has plans to write a second volume. She says she can’t explain how she finds the time to do it all; she just does it. She meditates daily, sets her sights on positive growth, and focuses on the things she likes to do, including prioritizing family. “I appreciate having the life that I have. I love that it’s always changing, and that I get to choose how I spend my days. Things are interesting and exciting.”

Always looking forward, Diana is now hinting that she may expand her business in the near future. Pizza lovers in Winnipeg and the surrounding area will stand to benefit from her high-quality creations.

 

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Posted on Thu, Mar 05, 2020 @ 07:03 AM.
Updated on March 13, 2020 @ 10:23 PM PST.

Posted by Miriam Robinson

Miriam is the Marketing Content Specialist with SpeedLine Solutions Inc., the go-to for pizza and delivery point of sale solutions.

linkedin | Author's website


Tags: Diana Cline, Diana's Cucina & Lounge, Women In Pizza

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