Mountain Mike's is taking its classic California pizza on the road, stepping up expansion plans. It aims to have 275 restaurants in eight states by the end of the year, as it looks to build market share in the premium pizza category.
"It's all about growth for us right now,” says Jim Metevier, president and chief operating officer. “That's growing sales, our franchisees' profits and our unit count. The more profits our franchisees make, the more they're going to invest back in the brand."
While it’s pushing into new markets, the restaurant chain is a household name in its home state. The 44-year-old company started in Palo Alto, California, and built its reputation on high-end pizza, topped with curly pepperoni served in family-friendly restaurants.
Currently, there are 248 units. And while California is still its stronghold, it's further expanding in Utah and Oregon and has plans to enter Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Texas by the end of the year.
Sales rose 15% last year to $250 million, on top of 8% the year before. And with an average unit volume of well over $1 million, Mountain Mike's recently broke into the Top 20 of PMQ's 2022 Pizza Power Report, a pizza trade report.
Pizza continues to be one of the sweetest spots in the QSR segment, forecast to have $141 billion globally in sales next year, with the U.S. accounting for a third of those revenues.
But that doesn't mean it's easy to differentiate itself from all those other slices. It continues to be a fiercely competitive category.
"We lead with what makes us unique," says Carol DeNembo, vice president of marketing. That includes food that is a little more upscale and restaurants serving beer and wine for parents and parties, and offering plenty of arcade games for kids.
Flexible seating is also important, with private rooms for celebrations. "We've always been the kind of place where Little League teams come for celebrations, fundraisers or birthday parties," DeNembo says.
That means that marketing needs to distill all the fun inherent in the experience of gathering for pizza as well as the quality of the food. “We make the sauce and dough fresh daily at every restaurant,” she tells QSR Land. And the pizzas are generously sized.
Marketing focuses on the idea of bringing families and communities together in an atmosphere that's friendly, familiar and fun. And there's little doubt that pizza means something more to people than just a meal.
In May of 2020, thinking the world could use a little more pizza love, Mountain Mike's brought back its heart-shaped pizza, normally reserved for Valentine’s Day.
"We wanted to remind people that home is where the heart is and that they could send this pizza love to others. And that's been really successful," she says.
The company, based in Newport Beach, California, continues to invest in more digital advertising and connected TV, using hyperfocused messaging. "Trying to get in front of anybody who eats pizza doesn't serve us. We want to reach the people who love our kind of pizza, our kind of experience," DeNembo says.
Sports are also an important focus. Mountain Mike’s is the official pizza of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. "There are some other teams we're dating right now, and we'll be announcing more partnerships soon,” she says.
There are still speedbumps. Franchisees continue to wrestle with both supply chain issues and the labor shortage crippling many restaurants.
"It's a firefight for them everyday day," says Metevier. “But we have people pounding down our doors to talk about franchise opportunities, so we feel very fortunate."
He adds: "Yes, pizza is competitive. But it's also a fantastic space. Everybody loves pizza."