Nick Bogacz of Caliente Pizza & Draft House: “5 Ways To Create a Wow! Customer Experience”

Connect with your community: Anything we can do to be a part of our community, we do it — sponsoring youth sports teams, raising funds for charity, donating food, etc. As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick […]

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Connect with your community: Anything we can do to be a part of our community, we do it — sponsoring youth sports teams, raising funds for charity, donating food, etc.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Bogacz. Nick is the founder and president of Caliente Pizza & Draft House, a Pittsburgh-area restaurant with six locations. He’s been in the pizza industry for almost 25 years, having done it all, from delivery boy to management. At Caliente, it was the “Draft House” part that made them stand out at first, being a prime location for craft beer in the region, but lately, it’s their pizza that’s been making the news, with their “Mee-Maw” pie winning Best Pizza in America at the 2019 World Pizza Championship. Nick has also written a book, “The Pizza Equation,” that details his business experience and lessons, he hosts “The Business Equation” podcast, and he’s a member of the World Pizza Team.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started in the industry as a delivery boy in 1996, and it’s been a long road since then, but a successful one. Pretty quickly, I found that I loved working at a pizzeria — the fast-paced nature, the camaraderie, being part of a team. It touched the right kind of nerve with me.

I stayed with it long enough that I came into management positions at some corporate chain stores, which taught me a lot about the industry at a deeper level — just what goes into making a successful business, dealing with employees and their personalities, increasing sales, creating marketing initiatives and all of the little things that go into it.

Eventually, I knew I wanted to do it on my own terms, so I opened Caliente Pizza & Draft House in 2012. I was able to develop and leverage some relationships I made in the industry to build a strong organization built around good food with ingredients our competition didn’t have. But what really made us stand out was our attention to our beer menu. We became known as a hotspot for unique craft beers that you couldn’t find elsewhere in the Pittsburgh region. It was our niche, and it worked so well that now we’re not only known for our beer menu but our food menu, too.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

My very first day in the pizza industry, on my very first delivery, I wrecked my car. Fortunately, no one was hurt, so I can laugh about it now — what a start! The best part of it, though, is I was able to borrow my mom’s car and finish my shift. If I took a lesson from it, it was to just keep doing your best. Even when life throws obstacles at you, just stick with it and success will come.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My wife, Angie, is certainly my rock and my love, but also my partner. She’s been able to support me through some difficult times, professionally and personally, and I can guarantee I wouldn’t be where I am without her. She even put up with me moving to the other side of the state for a job — a position in which I learned a lot but certainly missed home — and when I was balancing five jobs. Fortunately, now it’s just the one, and we’re in it together, as always.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

I look at it from the perspective of my own industry. I can remember being a kid with my family at our neighborhood pizza place. It just makes you feel comfortable and warm being in a place where everyone — even the people you don’t know — is there to enjoy the same thing: good pizza. It’s rare in America, a country where we have so many different tastes and options for food, but almost everyone can tell what good pizza and a good pizza place is. If you can find a way to mix all the right elements, tap into that shared experience, and that “good pizza knowledge” everyone instinctually has, you’ve got a return customer. And I’d say that’s the key for customer experience in any business — not being above the customer and respecting that they know what they want.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

If a company is going to be successful, it needs to identify what its culture is — its key values, its identity, the way it wants to be perceived — and practice that. Then it needs to hire like-minded employees. Everyone needs to buy into that culture. Presumably, this culture and a company’s values are going to be built around good customer experience (or else, what’s the point?). Companies that don’t make this a priority may have inexperienced management, no idea what their culture should be, or they’re just too focused internally — perhaps on being perceived as an innovator in their industry — rather than thinking about the people who matter most — their customers.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Competition certainly can influence the customer experience. Let’s say a competitor runs a promotion that customers love. It might make you realize you’re missing out on doing something that your own customers would love, too. At the same time, a business can’t stray too far from what they already do well.

As far as other external pressures, society changes all the time, so businesses have to change, too. Just think of technology. When I started in the industry, if you wanted a pizza, you went to the shop or picked up a corded phone. Now, restaurants need to have options for not only phones but partnerships with online delivery services, a website, their own apps, etc. If you’re missing one of those pieces, you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you’re not where the customers are. In this case, it’s on their phone screens.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

When I think of “wows,” it’s really when people started recognizing us for our food as much as for our beer selection. For a while, many of our customers were dropping by for a drink — and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that — but it’s funny now to think that we were a pizza place that was mostly known for what was on tap. In fact, we were recognized as the best bar in Pittsburgh before we won an award in 2016 for Best Pizza in the World. Beer is what allowed us to start wowing the customers with our food, though.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

An enormous part of why our menu is so respected and honored lately is due to our Executive Regional Chef Eric Von Hansen. He’s a friend who I was able to bring on to the team early on in Caliente’s history, and he’s so valuable here because he is trained in fine dining. People can have lower expectations for pizza — we don’t. We get the best ingredients from authentic locations, and we constantly play a game of trial and error to decide what works for new menu items.

As we’ve had success with unique combinations and customers have responded well to them, it’s enabled us to get even more creative and stand out from the pack. This creativity has also allowed us to grow our brand awareness in the region by competing in and winning competitions around the world.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1) Build a great team: From your managers on down, if you don’t have a team that reflects your own values and culture, customers might recognize a toxic or disjointed work environment and the business won’t work. Growing up, sports was incredibly important to me, and it showed me the value of teamwork. Teams that work well together succeed — and they get fans, or from a business perspective, returning customers.

2) Differentiate yourself: Customers want to be surprised. It’s OK to observe what a competitor is doing well and take lessons from it, but you can’t just do the exact same thing. Our restaurant sources ingredients from places I know our competitors are not going to, and our beer selection is unmatched by most other bars in the region. These are experiences people can’t get at other pizza places. They have to visit us to get that.

3) Sell fun: Two words: pizza party. Doesn’t hearing that phrase just give you a little thrill (even as an adult)? Our product is inherently synonymous with fun, so admittedly, it’s easy for us to sell a dining experience that is all about that sense of happiness, especially if they have young ones. As such, we double down on it with mascots, amusing signs on the wall, funky product names (not many menus have a “Godzilla” on them). The broader lesson, though, is selling the emotion you want your audience to experience. You sell soap? Make sure people can smell everything. You’re in an electronics store? Have demos on display.

4) Connect with your community: Anything we can do to be a part of our community, we do it — sponsoring youth sports teams, raising funds for charity, donating food, etc. By becoming a part of the community, people will recognize your business as such.

5) Do something every day: Have you ever had a day where you just go through the motions? Get up, do your job, go home, sleep. I hesitate to say it’s a wasted day, but it might have been for your business and your customers. I try to do one thing — just one, but hopefully more — every day. Perhaps it’s coming up with a new promotion. Maybe it’s holding a team meeting to discuss processes or performing evaluations with some employees. It could be buying new dishes for a store or replacing an oven that isn’t cooking as efficiently as it once did. Every little thing, big or small, that you do makes a difference in your business and, consequently, your customers. If you can put your head on the pillow knowing you did something that mattered that day, you’ll be sure to wow your customers and more.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

It always comes back to the community and fun with me. I see our role as being a place where people can fill that need for a night out with the family or a place to meet friends to watch a ballgame. We’re starting to do things on a bigger scale now, of course, opening the sixth store and participating in competitions around the world, but we don’t forget our roots. We make sure customers are part of our success with free offers, special events, and a growing social media presence. When you can be inclusive and more interactive outside of the regular business-customer relationship, it brings people back in and influences them to draw in others. And once you find something that works, do it over and over again until it stops working.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

People have a lot of self-doubts, so I’d start the movement to make people truly believe that you can achieve anything you want in life if you believe in yourself. It’s easy to let the circumstances around you dictate your future, or let your upbringing play such a role in your outlook that you never think for yourself and free your soul. It doesn’t matter where you are today — everyone starts somewhere, but it doesn’t mean you’re stuck on one path in life. The first step is to believe in yourself, that you are capable and deserving of all your desires.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’re on Facebook at Caliente Pizza & Drafthouse, Twitter at @calientepdrafth and Instagram at caliente_pizza.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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