Marco’s University Rises To The Occasion


Published: Sunday, 8/30/2015 – Updated: 2 days ago

Pizza U. rises to the occasion

Toledo’s Marco’s pizza chain teaches franchise owners to make dough



Trainer Chuck Blevins of Lincoln Park, Mich., spreads cheese on a pizza held by Sara Ragsdale of Charleston, S.C., in Marco’s new test kitchen on Monroe Street. Marco’s was named the second-fastest growing chain in the nation.






Trainer Chuck Blevins of Lincoln Park, Mich., spreads cheese on a pizza held by Sara Ragsdale of Charleston, S.C., in Marco’s new test kitchen on Monroe Street. Marco’s was named the second-fastest growing chain in the nation.


Ed Alimi flew this month nearly 2,000 miles from his San Diego home to Toledo to learn how not to make a pizza.

He could have stayed home, bought a pie from a local pizzeria, ate it, and learned absolutely nothing. But as a new franchisee of Toledo’s Marco’s Pizza, Mr. Alimi is keen to make his budding pizza franchise succeed.

“That’s the whole idea of being at the corporate office, he said. ”They teach us the best way to make a pizza and how not to make a pizza.”

His Toledo training included a week at “Marco’s Pizza University,” a $500,000 training kitchen and research and development facility that the pizza company opened six months ago at its headquarters at 5252 Monroe St.

The test kitchen and R&D center is used for many purposes, including testing new products, said Bryon Stephens, president and chief executive officer of Marco’s Franchising LLC, which operates Marco’s Pizza. “But the biggest reason for having it is we use it as a training facility for all our franchisees coming in,” he said.

Until last year, Marco’s gave its new franchisees a week of classroom time at its headquarters to cover business issues, then took them to a local store to practice making pizzas and other food items.

“That was OK, but it didn’t provide the most optimal training period,” Mr. Stephens said. “You had to contend with the business that was coming in the store. It was a really slow way to educate people, and it was stressful.”


Delmy Lopez of Smyrna, Ga., stretches dough for a medium-sized pizza. Behind her, Ed Alimi of San Diego, applies sauce to a crust.









Delmy Lopez of Smyrna, Ga., stretches dough for a medium-sized pizza. Behind her, Ed Alimi of San Diego, applies sauce to a crust.
With the 3,500-square-foot test kitchen, franchisees can learn the process “without being under fire,” he said.


Marco’s, which had $338 million in sales in 2014, decided that its big push to add franchises spurred the need for the kitchen training site.

Privately held Marco’s, which began in 1978 and recently was named the second-fastest growing large chain in the country by the Nation’s Restaurant News, has 640 stores in 35 states and the Bahamas, including 141 restaurants added in the last year. It says it is on track to quadruple its store count by 2022.

It plans to open 150 stores by the end of this year, and recently it finalized deals for 400 new stores in India over the next 10 years and 40 stores in Puerto Rico over the next nine.

Four years ago it was adding 20 to 40 stores a year, but now is doing 150 to 175, Mr. Stephens said.

“We started to realize that in order to have 10 to 12 people in a training class at one time, to keep that one-on-one element, we needed to do a reboot,” the chief executive officer said.

Lynn Liddle, a Domino’s Pizza executive who is chairman of the American Pizza Community, a lobbying organization whose members include most of the nation’s largest pizza chains — but not Marco’s — said it is common for pizza companies to have test kitchens.

Such test kitchens are used to “test recipes and operational aspects of our products, conduct training or demonstrations,” Ms. Liddle said.

“Pizza is a handmade, fresh product in many cases and requires the same care and artistry as any food recipe would,” she added.

Marla Topliff, chairman of the National Restaurant Association’s Pizzeria Council, said of a test kitchen, “It gives [franchisees] the opportunity to slow down and learn things the right way.”


Robert Tankoos of Charlotte ladles marinara sauce into small cups to accompany cheesy bread orders. Mr. Tankoos, who is originally from Toledo, and the other franchisees put their skills to the test at Marco’s Pizza corporate office.






Robert Tankoos of Charlotte ladles marinara sauce into small cups to accompany cheesy bread orders. Mr. Tankoos, who is originally from Toledo, and the other franchisees put their skills to the test at Marco’s Pizza corporate office.
“If you’re a larger chain like Marco’s, this is an excellent move, because when you’re bringing in franchisees you need a place to train them according to to your recipes,” said Ms. Topliff, president ofRosati’s Pizza in Chicago. And, she added, it is cheaper than sending out training teams.


“Plus, it’s very difficult to train someone out in the field,” she said. “We do our training in our main corporate store. Frankly, the kitchen isn’t large enough. It’s just too small, plus you want the best possible training setting you can get,” she said.

As a bonus, a test kitchen gives a chain the place to develop new recipes. “Recipes can take a long time to develop. It could take up to several months,” Ms. Topliff said.

Mr. Stephens said Marco’s shows franchisees not only how to make the perfect pizza, but how pizza-making can go wrong.

“We’ll have them purposely make dough wrong on occasion so they can see what would happen without a particular ingredient, what happens to our dough without the proper water, what happens when the water is too warm or the water is too cold,” the CEO said. “It’s one thing to know what looks wrong in theory. This way they’ll know what it looks like in practice.”

Not only does the training help with quality assurance, he said, it also means the trainees see something happen, such as a pizza crust that doesn’t rise properly, and then they will know what to do, something maybe they wouldn’t realize if they had previously seen it.

Franchisees get a certificate for completing Pizza University training, which includes a week of classes, followed by six weeks in the field at a franchisee in their home region, then a final week in the test kitchen.

“They come back here so we can thoroughly test them,” Mr. Stephens said.

Mr. Alimi, a former IT specialist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spent his six weeks at a store in Salt Lake City. There are only a handful of Marco’s Pizza stores in California, he said.


BIZ pizza19p    Iffy (cq) Momin (cq), of Decatur, Alabama, checks how much green pepper to put on a pizza.      Marco's Pizza franchise trainees polish their skills in the expanding pizza business' new test kitchen in Toledo, Ohio on August 19, 2015.     The Blade/Jetta Fraser






Iffy (cq) Momin (cq), of Decatur, Alabama, checks how much green pepper to put on a pizza. Marco’s Pizza franchise trainees polish their skills in the expanding pizza business’ new test kitchen in Toledo, Ohio on August 19, 2015.


In fact, Mr. Alimi is the first franchisee in San Diego. When he went looking for a career change and decided on a food franchise, he and his family had to drive two hours to Los Angeles just to find a Marco’s pizza to taste.

“We did a test, and everybody likes it. It’s fresh, very fresh dough and ingredients. I’m sure everybody in San Diego is going to like Marco’s Pizza,” said Mr. Alimi, who paid between $300,000 and $500,000 for his franchise. Marco’s said that the average cost for one of its franchises is $350,000.

Besides training franchisees, The Marco’s test kitchen gives the company a secluded place to plan and test potential new menu items. Recently, two flavors of brownie desserts — a Ghirardelli Double Chocolate version and a S’mores version — emerged from the kitchen after some experimentation.

It also successfully designed three limited-time specialty pizzas in the kitchen — a spicy fresco pizza, a grilled chicken florentine, and a Roma meats pizza.

“Our desserts lineup is something that we look at on our menu mix all the time,” Mr. Stephens said. “But we’ll look … beverages, pizzas, salads, sandwiches, sides, breadsticks, and desserts.”

After testing new products in the test kitchen, they are tested with customers in one or two areas. Before, initial testing was done in stores, and the customers expected that product to be on the menu later, and it may have been scrubbed. Plus, in a test kitchen, there’s more confidentiality on new products, Mr. Stephens said.

And, the test provides a place to test out new equipment, something to improve the efficiency, checked out initially without affecting an operating store.

Contact Jon Chavez at: or 419-724-6128


Why Training Is More Important Than Marketing

Aug 27, 2015

What is in this article?:

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker at foodservice leadership conferences worldwide. His newest book Fundamentals is available at Amazon Check out his leadership video series at This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. chief executive Jim Sullivan

What is the function of a business?If you answered, “To make money,” you’re wrong. The function of a business is to attain and retain customers. The goal is to make money.

As I’m sure you know, having a full dining room, bar or drive thru is no guarantee you’re profitable. Volume can hide a multitude of sins: Chefs over-order perishable goods; cooks burn food; servers underwhelm guests; bartenders break liquor bottles; patrons knock over glassware; busers drop china-filled bus tubs; dishwashers drop forks in garbage disposals; and drive-thru cashiers over-portion napkins, sauces and condiments. Full house? Awesome. But a lack of customer retention via effective training means you just lost money tonight.

Money spent on customer acquisition (advertising and promotion) can fill a restaurant, but money spent on customer retention (training and service) makes that restaurant profitable by transforming a single visitor into a lifetime guest.

So, if our function is to attain and retain guests, which of the two is more important: customer acquisition or customer retention?

Regular readers of this column now presume that I will vociferously support and defend customer retention. And, if you’re a regular reader of this column, it stands to reason that you’re not only smart; you’re right.

When’s the last time you saw a TV ad for Starbucks or Chipotle? How about McDonald’sor Subway? McDonald’s spent $963 million in advertising last year, according to Business Insider. AdAge Data Center reports that Subway spent $516 million. Both Starbucks and Chipotle spent a fraction of those amounts in advertising. Now which two of those four brands have a stronger reputation for taking care of their employees and customers? Which ones invest more in customer retention (training and service) than customer acquisition (advertising and promotion)? Just saying.

Let’s look a little closer at the four stages of marketing and the role that training plays in its success. Restaurant trial occurs either by chance or by choice. Chance patronage is just that: circumstantial patronage resulting from either proximity or error. “I ate there because it was close to work and I tried it,” or “I got lost and was hungry.” Choice patronage, on the other hand, is a much more nuanced decision, initially triggered by external marketing (ads, promotion). But sustained patronage results from internal marketing: unit-level teams excelling at execution and hospitality.

The four stages of marketing

Awareness. In this initial stage of engagement, potential diners may not have even heard of your restaurant. So advertising, promotion and social media marketing budgets tend to be heavily weighted toward new customer engagement. Your potential new diners become aware of you through these efforts. Those who miss your message may hear about you from influencers who didn’t (influencers being the one person in 10 that affects awareness in the other nine).

Consideration. This stage is characterized by contemplation and then decision-making on the part of the potential customer. They’re now aware of you and trying to determine if you’re worth their time and money. If they decide you’re not, then the Awareness stage marketing campaign was money ill spent. If they decide you’re worthy of their time and money, you move to the next phase. Marketing has done its job and operations/training takes over.

Visitation. The diner has now moved through two complex and formidable marketing stages (Awareness/Consideration) and actually goes to the restaurant. This is why customer retention strategy (service and training) is so important: it’s where the brand meets the customer. Cherish this stage, because you experience the double win of patronage: The customer spends money with you and simultaneously does not spend money at the competition. Huzzah!

Preference (Affinity). This stage is the ultimate target for every foodservice department, executive, employee, manager, trainer and stockholder. Preference drives repeat business and lifelong patronage. Only by excelling at the Visitation stage every time do you convert customers to prefer your brand over others. Marketing is the car, training is the engine and execution is the steering wheel of customer retention.

How do you balance efforts between attaining and retaining customers? Join the conversation in the comments below.

As you consider the four stages, evaluate how your marketing, ops, HR and training teams can improve each one. When a new restaurant opens, most of its marketing dollars should be allotted to customer acquisition. But as diners accrue over time, shift those dollars into customer retention. Don’t overspend on marketing and underspend on training, lest you fall into the vicious cycle of constantly acquiring customers you can’t retain.

If you spend more on customer acquisition than you do on customer retention, you’re actually working for competitors who do just the opposite by providing excellent training, personalized service and a quality experience for every guest.

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. You can check out his training catalog of books, videos, apps and e-learning at, and follow him on YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision.

Four Ways to Elevate the Guest Experience

Here’s a short video of Mark Sanborn, at a speaking engagement for Buffalo Wildwings.  Interestingly, he speaks to “Four Ingredients of an Elevated Experience:”

1. The Guest Always Receives Value.  This means the Guest gets what they expect, even if their expectations aren’t right.

2. Surprise the Guest. If something was “as expected,” then its just “value.” However, if the Guest receives service or product that was not expected (in a pleasant way), then the guest is pleasantly surprised (and they will tell stories about your organization).

3. Your Job as a GM, Franchisee, or Manager is the Management of Guest Emotion.  The question is: “Did the Guest leave happier than when they came into your restaurant?” If they did, they’ll promote you (i.e. become a net promoter). THIS is the lifeblood of a brand…because Guests won’t simply tell bullet points about you, they’ll tell a (positive) story about you, and usually along the lines of “You MUST try this…” or “You MUST go there….”.

4. Guests Want to be Insiders! So know them. Know and use their names. Know and mention their “usuals.” Guests want credit for their loyalty!

Driving Customer (Guest) Experience Transformation

A short but informative video. Please note in particular, the “4 Customer (Guest) Experience Core Competencies.” They are described here as:

1. Purposeful Leadership: happens when leaders create a clear vision and act accordingly

2. Compelling Brand Values: having a strong sense of your brand’s values, which drives “who you are”

3. Employee Engagement: disengaged employees cannot create engaged customers (Guests); if you want employees to consistently deliver a great customer (Guest) experience, then they need to be valued, supported, and buy into your mission

4. Customer (Guest) Connectedness: in order to deliver on the needs of the customers (Guests), you must first understand those needs, Customer (Guest) Connectedness is about ensuring that all of your decisions are based on a deep understanding of what customers (Guests) are doing, thinking, and feeling. This takes a lot more than just using surveys

Customer Experience is not a veneer, but a reflection of the company’s culture and its operating processes (“Brilliant at the Basics!”)

If a company wants to build sustainable differentiation (from its competitors), then it will need to create a customer (Guest) centric organization.