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Carefully crafted with a secret sauce recipe, fresh-cut veggies and scratch-made crust, pizza at Winco is anything but an afterthought.
Jeff Cullers, Winco’s director of pizza operations, said the company has perfected its pizza in a manner that sets it apart from the competition. He should know: He’s been in the pizza business since 1984, when he started as a delivery driver for Domino’s.
Winco first began offering in-store pizza about 28 years ago with a franchise called Figaro’s. About 15 years and many pies later, the employee-owned grocer decided to take over operations and rename its in-store pizza shops Leonardi's. Today, Winco has Leonardi's Pizza shops at 50 of its 126 stores, with each new store getting a full-service shop.
"Pizza is definitely a department that is continuing to grow in our company," Cullers said.
While shoppers always want to see classics on the menu, they also like to try new items. Cullers keeps an eye on trends and attends Pizza Expo every year in Las Vegas. When it makes sense, he’ll try something new.
One of the ways Winco does this is through adding limited time offerings like chili pie pizza for football season and a taco pizza. Soon the grocer will add dessert flatbreads and cauliflower crust to the menu.
Cullers notes that cauliflower crust is also a gluten-free option for customers with special dietary preferences, making it a widely popular choice right now.
Pizza-by-the-slice out of the hot case is what Winco does best. And it’s the number one best-selling item because people love to treat themselves after they’re done with their shopping, Cullers said.
For those in-the-know, Cullers noted Winco’s grinders are also a fan favorite. Winco serves eight different grinders, such as the BBQ Smokehouse, which consists of Canadian bacon, pepperoni, sausage, bacon, pineapple and BBQ sauce. Grinders ring up at $3.98 for a half or $6.48 for a whole, according to Winco's website. Calzones are also popular.
Helping customers 'treat' themselves
Shoppers who come to Winco are typically making a big grocery trip, and Cullers said having fresh pizza is appealing to them. Pizza counters are located near the exits and customers see them after they have checked out.
Cullers believes there’s an intrinsic value to the pizza department that doesn’t necessarily show up on a profit-and-loss sheet.
"They come in, they shop, they get their basket full of groceries, and now here’s this pizza to kind of give themselves a treat," Cullers said. "And I definitely think that is something that helps our customer base stay interested."
Winco's pizza dough is made fresh in Winco’s in-store bakery, and the veggies are pulled from the produce section and hand-cut. Cullers said it's unique in the pizza business to use vegetables as fresh as Winco does for its pizza shops.
Winco also employs a proprietary sauce recipe, which Cullers said they've tweaked over the years to make sure it stays right. "No one is selling that sauce like we have," he said.
The full-service advantage
Winco isn’t the only grocer to offer fresh pizza, but it is one of the few that offers a full menu and gives customers the option to customize their orders, said Cullers.
"We are like a full-service pizza shop in the grocery store," he said.
Over the past few years, Winco has been redesigning its pizza departments to make them smaller. This might seem counterintuitive for a full-service operation, but Cullers said the new space reduces the footsteps employees have to make from the prep lines to the ovens and the cutting table.
Winco's pizzerias frequently get busy, making speed and efficiency vitally important, Cullers said.
Additionally, since Winco doesn’t have a full pizza shop in every location, some stores have added pizza hot cases in the deli departments that offer fresh pizza during certain times of the day.
Quality and consistency
According to Cullers, Winco has perfected its pizza offering so that it’s just "really, really good." And it’s always $9.98, no matter how many toppings.
"We try to keep it as simple as possible," he said
Hot pizza inside!
While Winco doesn’t advertise, it does use social media to engage with customers. Cullers said the company’s social media team promotes pizza with photos on Facebook and Instagram.
Signage, both in-store and outside, also plays an important role. A sidewalk sign, for example, lets customers know there's pizza inside. To keep long-term customers coming back and draw new ones, Winco will run promos like $1 lunchtime slices.
"We obviously know that keeping customers interested is key to what we do in this business and so we are always trying to do that," Cullers said.
The state of pizza in the U.S.
- The U.S. contributes $45.7 billion to the global pizza market. Independent chains comprise about 41% of sales, while the top 50 chains make up about 59%.
- Pizza is widely available at retailers, with companies like Costco and Whole Foods offering made-to-order pies.
- Other grocers such as Kroger are partnering with pizza chains to operate restaurants in-store.