Plant-Based Proteins: Pizzerias’ Success Secrets, Part Two

Sarpino’s boasts nearly 50 units spread across the Midwest, and its sights are now set on expansion through franchising in Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Colorado and across the Southeast. Its full vegan menu launched in May 2020, and now the chain offers a range of plant-based additions (pepperoni, sausage, cheese and chicken) on that menu, which has 13 specialty pizzas, four calzones, cheesy breads, pastas, sandwiches and chicken tenders, plus four new deep-dish pizzas. Here’s the breakdown of how this growing brand is making vegan meats work for its high-volume shops:

Marketing messages: Though vegans and vegetarians have provided much word-of-mouth marketing, Sarpino’s supplements this with email, SMS and internet search campaigns, as well as through social media posts and third-party platforms. “We worked with our partners to do a ‘Pepperoni Challenge Pizza’ at the beginning of the year, creating a pizza that was half plant-based pepperoni and half regular at a discounted price to let our customers try it,” notes David Chatkin, president of Sarpino’s USA. “The response was very positive, with the pizza being in the top 10 sold during the promotion, and we saw a sustained increase in plant-based pepperoni topping add-ons from the regular menu.”

Meat matchmaking: Spurred on by a vegan customer’s request in 2019, the brand started to explore vegan and flexitarian food trends and eventually brought Beyond Meat and Daiya cheese on board. “We saw how fast that market was growing and what a tremendous opportunity this was for our franchisees, so we decided to create an entirely vegan menu—not just small additions—to have the same vast variety as we do with our regular menu,” Chatkin recalls. “We tested a range of plant-based proteins and went with products that were high-quality, complemented our flavor profiles, and, most importantly, that our vegan customers would love.”

Pizza pairing: Before adding plant-based products, the Sarpino’s team spent months working to create processes for streamlining cooking and preparation. “With our hyper-efficient operations design, we have a smaller staff than most, which meant we couldn’t over-burden franchisees when adding this offering,” explains Scott Nelowet, Sarpino USA’s director of franchise development. “We found that the vegan cheese paired with our vegan pizza sauce we created really brings out the flavor in just about all of our other toppings. We spent a lot of time experimenting with them, because vegan done poorly will hurt not just vegan sales but also the complementary sales that come along with them.”

Customer response: “The customer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has become a very loyal fan base,” Nelowet notes. “The profit to our franchisees has been significant, and not just via the vegan customers. Vegetarian customers, tired of the ancillary offerings of others that are simply an afterthought, really appreciate our dedication to plant-based cuisine.” The brand believes that one of the reasons it saw an improvement of $150,000 in average store sales is the addition of the vegan customers—and the friends and family they bring with them, who may or may not be vegan.

Pricing and profits: Plant-based proteins are slightly more expensive than traditional proteins, so the brand engaged in months of refinement to ensure it could offer plant-based at a significant profit. The company now recommends that franchisees do not charge more than $1 or $2 extra for the vegan items or raise the topping charge for the plant-based proteins on the regular menu.

Words of wisdom: “Listen to what the vegan community is asking for! If you approach this in a disingenuous way, they will know it, and you will never recover,” Chatkin says. “They know that when restaurants’ vegetarian or vegan offering is just to take the meat off what they already do—that they don’t really care and are just in it for the money. Instead, take the time to create recipes and offerings specifically for this audience. And, as always, thoroughly train your staff on the new items, including how to handle items properly.”

To read the full article about pizzerias’ plant-based protein success stories, check out the August 2022 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.

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