TAMPA — When Westshore Pizza asked consumers what they liked about pizza, it wasn't just the cheese, sauce and crust.
It had to taste the same every time. Even mediocre pizza from a national chain was considered acceptable if it was consistent. Sauce a little bland? That was fine as long as the next order wasn't too spicy.
That attitude didn't stop with the food. People wanted consistency across the board — in the menus, pricing and even restaurant paint colors.
Creating an experience customers can count on became a focal point of Westshore Pizza's new rebranding to rejuvenate the 19-year-old regional chain. It's not enough to make a quality pie, the owners concluded. To better compete with Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's, every location needed to work from the same playbook.
And that wasn't happening.
Over the years, some of the franchisees had drifted away from the original Westshore Pizza concept. Cheesesteaks that sold for $5.99 at one location sold for $6.99 at another. Instead of red and green decor, some restaurants had maroon. Coupons varied and weren't redeemable at every location. Not every pizza had the same amount of cheese and toppings.
Perhaps most egregious was the logo, a baseball diamond with the name "The Taste of Philly Westshore Pizza & Cheesesteaks.'' In some stores, the logo had home plate upside down.
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Bob Vasaturo founded Westshore Pizza & Cheesesteaks in 1994 in a former deli along South Tampa's West Shore Boulevard. A Philadelphia native who started in the pizza business as a teen, he was visiting a friend in Tampa who said the area could use a Philly-style pizza and cheesesteak place.
The concept quickly caught on and, within two years, the company had expanded to about 10 locations. Since then, it has grown to 31 stores in the Tampa Bay area, including seasonal ones at the Yankees and Phillies spring training stadiums, and one in Ohio, where a relative of a local franchisee lives.
In all, the business does about $20 million in sales a year, about two-thirds from delivery and carry-out. Of course, pizza is the top seller (46 percent of sales), followed by cheesesteaks (19 percent), but other items such as pasta and salads favored by female customers are on the rise.
Feeling the pressure of owning the flagship store and maintaining franchise standards, Vasaturo decided two years ago to sell to investors who could take the chain nationwide. He had a deal with a publicly traded company but, when that fell through, he teamed up with longtime friend Paul Samson, who owns a franchise consulting company, and Samson's accountant, Keith Koehler.
"I wanted to compete with the big boys," said Vasaturo, noting that when he started the restaurant, he never intended it to become a franchise. "I was a one-man show, and I needed some help."
Samson and Koehler became majority owners in March with one goal: deliver a consistent consumer experience. Vasaturo still runs the original restaurant and owns a small share of the company.
First up, Samson and Koehler hired Schifino Lee, a well-respected advertising agency in Tampa, to lead the rebranding. It organized focus groups and interviewed more than 800 people about Westshore's food, branding, pricing and other features.
The top complaint? Inconsistent food and customer service.
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Schifino Lee incorporated the feedback into a new logo that debuted this month — a simple circle with the name Westshore Pizza & Cheesesteaks. It updated marketing materials, restaurant menu boards and the website for easier online ordering. In the upcoming weeks, it's airing TV commercials on cable stations and erecting 50 billboards across the region.
Samson describes it as a coming-out party a long time coming.
"Consumers don't know that we have 32 stores and we're the largest regional pizza chain in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties," he said. "We're sleepy; no one knows we're here."
Westshore Pizza plans to spend $600,000 on rebranding, marketing and advertising efforts over the next year, a huge amount for a local campaign. The marketing targets the social nature of pizza and how it's best enjoyed by a group gathered around a box. Billboards say, "We. Love. Good." The 30-second TV spot shows friends playing poker and eating pizza.
Company officials expect the rebranding and ad blitz will result in a double-digit sales increase at the restaurants and attract new customers.
The owners have identified about a dozen areas in the Tampa Bay region underserved by pizza and hope to open four to six locations in the next year. Also on the radar are sites in South Florida and the Southeast.
Franchise interest has been high, much like the country's demand for pizza. U.S. pizza sales were $36.8 billion last year, according to PMQ Pizza magazine, and are forecasted to grow 1.6 percent.
Pizza's appeal is universal.
"It's the one food you can bring home and not have anybody disappointed in what's for dinner," Koehler said.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.