As Ali Baba Pizza opens its sixth location, Mark Murr, one of the chain’s four principal partners, recalls humbler beginnings.
"It started very quietly," Mark says. "We used to sit around playing cards, waiting for the phone to ring. We struggled for many years as an unknown little ma-and-pa shop."
The first Ali Baba Pizza opened in 1986, when George Murr, Mark’s father, converted one of his restaurants into a pizzeria and started selling two-for-one pizzas for delivery and take-out. Mark formally joined the business in 1990, after working for various restaurants around town.
As the years went by, the concept evolved beyond two-for-one: new, bolder pizza combinations bulked up the menu. Business picked up; ringing phones put an end to leisurely card games. "Things were becoming more and more difficult to control," Mark says, “and we decided we needed a POS system."
The Murrs installed a SpeedLine system at Ali Baba Pizza in May 2001. "SpeedLine opened my eyes," Mark says. "Before we had a POS, I was flying blind. I had no idea what our labor percentage was from hour to hour. I had no idea where our sales were at: I would have had to manually add up all of our deliveries. Before SpeedLine, the information was there, but it was completely out of my reach."
A Model for Growth
The new business intelligence SpeedLine provided helped rev up growth at Ali Baba Pizza. Three more locations opened around town, and a second location that had opened in the early ‘90s was relocated:
"There is no way we could have grown like we have without a POS," says Mark. "We wouldn’t have had the control we needed."
Each pizzeria has a seating area—the largest has 25 seats, and the smallest only six—for counter-service customers. The bread and butter of the business are deliveries and sales by the slice.
At the heart of the local chain’s success are solid partnerships. "All our new stores are corporate-owned, with working partners," Mark explains."We don’t franchise; there’s always a partner involved in each location. Having an owner/operator present at the store makes a big difference: We have tried to run stores with managers, and they do an okay job, but it’s never the same as having an owner on site. When a customer calls up with a complaint, the owner is there to deal with any concerns on a personal level. This model has been very successful for us."
Mark and three partners―his dad and two cousins―use SpeedWeb, the remote management component of SpeedLine, to keep an eye on the stores. "We all carry Web-enabled cell phones, and we check SpeedWeb continuously throughout the evening even if we are at home with our families," Mark says, "so there is always an owner available to handle any customer issues."
"I knew that having a POS system would help me control my business as it grew,but I had no idea that the effect would be so great."
"Keeping informed when not in the stores is by far my favorite SpeedLine feature," Mark adds. "With SpeedWeb, it’s easy to have a quick look at what’s happening in the store, no matter where you are. This has liberated me from the office computer."
Mark spends time reviewing performance with his partners in each location. Even though each store functions as an independent business with an owner/operator steering the course, everyone abides by common standards.
"We gather information and reports from SpeedLine for each store independently," Mark says. "But I have an office in each location. We try to keep things uniform. When we launch new menu items, I create a menu and export it to all the stores. The same is true when we upgrade our SpeedLine system. Sometimes, we use one store to test something new: Right now I am trying a customer survey in one location. But if it is successful after a one-month trial, we’ll implement that function in the other stores as well."
In addition to its storefront operations, Ali Baba has also forged by-the-slice partnerships with several venues in town, including two universities, the local arena, and race track. "We make fresh pizzas in the morning, wrap them, and deliver them to all these locations," Mark explains. "Once on site, the pizzas are baked, cut, and sold by the slice throughout the day."
Partnering with local businesses to sell by the slice goes hand in hand with Ali Baba Pizza’s strong commitment to community involvement. "We sponsor baseball teams; we’re involved in schools; we donate to charities and help them raise funds; we participate in events like the gay pride parade and local festivals," Mark enthuses. "When people have the opportunity to taste our product, I believe they enjoy it, and they start ordering from us."
Ali Baba has forged by-the-slice partnerships with several venues in town, including two universities, the local arena, and race track.
"We also do bulk mail and radio advertising," Mark adds. "But we don’t discount or offer deals. All we do is just put ourselves everywhere out there. We let people know what we are doing and just promote ourselves as the local quality market leaders."
Even though their region is a prime tourist destination, Mark and his partners concentrate their marketing efforts on the local market. "We’ve tried advertising in hotel rooms in the past, but that wasn’t very successful," Mark says. "A big fancy ad doesn’t prove we have a good product. If travelers are interested in trying a local restaurant, they’ll ask someone who lives here for advice. It is the concierge and bellboys in the various hotels who recommend us to visitors."
"That’s why we attend all these various events around town," Mark points out. "We want to stay in the public eye at all times."
Innovation Drives Profits
High visibility in the community certainly helps generate traffic. But to keep customers hooked on Ali Baba’s pies, Mark and his partners focus on staying fresh and innovative. "We travel and seek out inspiration," Mark notes. "This year, we went to Pizza Expo, looking for new pizza ideas. It’s important to stay ahead of the trends."
The Ali Baba Pizza menu reflects this adventurous outlook, frequently featuring new pizza selections with smart topping combinations such as sirloin steak, garlic butter, and baby potatoes; or salmon, spinach, artichoke hearts, and shrimp.
In addition, Mark and his partners keep an eye out for new technology options: Ali Baba was one the first SpeedLine users to launch an integrated online ordering Web site in 2006. "We wanted to make sure we were ahead of the trend in town," Mark says. "And because we are using SpeedLine and partnering with Brygid Technologies to provide our online ordering menu, it has been very successful—and flawless."
"Our busiest store handles around 450 online orders a month. I’d say half our online orders are from new customers, and the other half come from current customers who appreciate the convenience."
"Our busiest store handles around 450 online orders a month, and our slowest around 120 a month," Mark reports. "I’d say half our online orders are from new customers, and the other half come from current customers who appreciate the convenience."
"People shopping online have more time to look around and explore," Mark explains. "If they phone when we are busy, we don’t always have time to provide them with the information they want. Online shoppers are more likely to sample new pizza items. For us, that’s the main benefit of online ordering."
As part of their online efforts, Ali Baba Pizza also launched a fan club on Facebook to keep in touch with customers. "We started the fan club at the suggestion of a staff member," Mark says. "It’s a good way to appeal to the younger generation and be everywhere that they may be looking."
"We serve a diverse clientele," Mark adds. "We stay ahead by doing our research and listening to our staff and to our customers. They’re really our best resource. For example, we have had a lot of requests recently for crust options. So we launched a multigrain crust, which has been a huge hit."
The Secret of Success
Ultimately, what drives innovation at Ali Baba Pizza and keeps pizza lovers asking for more is simple passion: "We’re passionate about the pizza business," Mark declares. "We are very devoted to what we do and we do it to the best of our ability. And that’s what is behind our success."
"We’re hoping for steady growth," Mark concludes. "Opening one store per year would be fantastic. We’re not looking to become the next big chain. We just want to make good pizza, have a good market share in our city, and enjoy what we do."