Coal-fired ovens, strong customer focus drive Grimaldi’s franchise strategy| 1-on-1 with Pizza Leadership

Grimaldi’s is capitalizing on a century-old baking style utilizing coal-fired ovens and now, with operations all in place, the company is embracing franchising.

| by Mandy Wolf Detwiler — Managing Editor, Networld Media Group

The origin story of coal-fired pizza began in a small bakery in Brooklyn over a hundred years ago. Since Manhattan had strict rules against coal-fired ovens, fans of the savory treat had to cross the Brooklyn Bridge find it.

Coal-fired pizza adds a unique flavor to pizza dough and bakes fast. Grimaldi’s Pizzeria opened at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1990 with coal-fired pizza in mind. The flagship restaurant features three floors and can accommodate more than 100 diners. Here you’ll find classic red-checkered tablecloths, handcrafted hanging wine bottle chandeliers and classic photos of Brooklyn. But it’s the coal-fired oven — which can heat to more than 1,000 degrees — that takes center stage.

“We at Grimaldi’s pride ourselves on staying true to that authentic pizza-making tradition that began over a hundred years ago,” said Michael Flaum, COO of Grimaldi’s, in a phone interview.

CEO Joe Ciolli, bought the Brooklyn restaurant 2003 and opened a second Grimaldi’s in Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona, the same year. Ownership moved the company’s headquarters to Scottsdale as well.

Today, there are 41 company-owned stores and three company-owned satellite kitchens.

Franchising efforts began in 2019. Development agreements have been awarded to two domestic franchisees for Alabama, the first in Huntsville opening in the next 30 days, and a second in the Birmingham area, which will also most likely open in 2022. A development deal has been inked for five units in the United Arab Emirates, with the first unit beginning construction in Abu Dhabi and a second in Dubai.

The plan is to open six restaurants in 2022 while at the same time entering into the fast-casual market in Arizona this year.

“Our goal is to get Grimaldi’s into every neighborhood across the country and to get our brick-and-mortars different from what our fast casuals are,” Flaum said. That includes smaller stores able to be built into tighter spots than the full-service restaurants require.

Grimaldi’s continues to open in markets in which they operate and rely on franchising in new markets. “We don’t want to be competitors of our franchisees,” Flaum said. “There’s no finite percentage of company-owned stores to franchised restaurants.”

On the menu

At the forefront of every Grimaldi’s is its custom-built brick coal-fired oven with its pizzaiolos front and center.

“They are really the focal point of our restaurant,” Flaum said. “We build that restaurant around that oven because we want people to see how we make that product. That’s really our showcase, and that’s what we really like our guests to be able to see and experience.”

Flaum said the ovens aren’t hard to operate and don’t use that much coal.

Pizzas and calzones are handcrafted, salads are made fresh and Grimaldi’s is known for their decadent desserts. There’s also a curated wine list with a signature wine.

Pizzas come in 12-, 16- and 18-inch sizes, and pepperoni, as usual, is the No. 1 topping. The Caesar salad is the top choice for salads.

Dough is also made in house and toppings are cut fresh, as is the cheesecake.

“We pretty much do everything in the house,” Flaum said, “handcrafted, hand designed and customized by the guest.”

Meeting head challenges on

Grimaldi’s considers itself a “people first” organization. The brand pays retention and referral bonuses to employees, “and we continue to meet the challenges related to the pandemic as far as labor and sourcing, but the labor shortage was felt by the entire restaurant industry,” Flaum said. “Many restaurants are understaffed, and distributors were struggling to retain drivers to maintain delivery schedules.”

To aid in labor issues, Flaum said they’ve cross utilized their employees and have a great reputation as employers in their respective communities. “We’ve been able to mitigate the risk of labor shortages because of these things, and unlike many other restaurants we were able to keep all of restaurants open,” Flaum said.

When it comes to working with suppliers, the brand is constantly reviewing its relationships with vendors and service providers to ensure they’re receiving quality service. They have a procurement department that manages those expectations and relationships.

On the tech side

Grimaldi’s is always looking for new technology to aid operations. At the end of 2020, Grimaldi’s launched a comprehensive app. It had improved its online ordering system when COVID-19 hit, so the brand was already set up for the onslaught of online orders that would follow the implementation of lockdowns.

The company’s loyalty program, Grimaldi’s Rewards, allows customers to get points for frequent dining and get a free pizza on their birthday.

Grimaldi’s continues to utilize technology to help keep customer experience at the forefront of its operations.

“We’re continuing to look at how technology fits in to what we do and how we can make the guest experience better,” Flaum said.

Setting Grimaldi’s apart

Grimaldi’s is involved in the communities in which the restaurants are built. In 2021, the company made a donation of $102,000 to its non-profit partners, including the American Heart Association and No Kid Hungry.

“I think that allows us to create the awareness of who we are and what we’re about,” Flaum said, “and when guests come in and try us, we have a great product. The coal-fired pizzas are different than what you get elsewhere.”

Great food and great service that leads to memorable guest experiences also set the company apart from its competitors.

“People love coming to Grimaldi’s because Grimaldi’s provides an outstanding dining experience,” Flaum said, “and it’s just the neighborhood establishment that everybody can go to and enjoy quality products and quality service.”

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