Punch Neapolitan Pizza takes a swing at steady expansion

Punch Neapolitan Pizza takes a swing at steady expansion

MINNEAPOLIS —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Punch, co-owned by John Sorrano and John Puckett and based here, has been winning over the taste buds of celebrities, critics and civilians for more than a decade. Sorrano, who spent his childhood in Italy, opened the restaurant’s first location in St. Paul in 1996. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“Nobody was doing Neapolitan pizza, especially not locally,” Sorrano said of the traditional style of pizza, which has a thin crust, uses only fresh ingredients and is baked in a wood-burning oven. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Puckett, who co-founded the 484-unit Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee [3] chain in 1992, frequented the first Punch restaurant as a customer before joining the business as a partner in 2001. The chain has since grown to include five locations in the Twin Cities area, and two more units are slated to open during the next year. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Punch might expand regionally as well, the co-owners said. In mid-February, Sorrano and Puckett were scoping out potential locations in the Wisconsin cities of Madison and Milwaukee. But Puckett emphasizes that his team is not in a hurry to open new Punch units, preferring steady growth and more control. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“With Caribou we were really in a huge hurry to get big quick,” he said, “and this one we are growing more organically with cash flow and not taking equity investors. So we just wanted to try something different, where we could put all of our energy and focus on operations versus growth.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The pizza segment is a competitive one, with an estimated 74, 299 pizzerias in the United States posting about $32.2 billion in sales annually, according to Pizza Marketing Quarterly, a publication of the Pizza Trade Association. Huge chains like Pizza Hut [4], Domino’s [5], Papa John’s [6] and Little Caesar’s account for nearly 35 percent of annual pizza sales, and independents account for more than 50 percent. The remaining 15 percent of sales are attributable to significant regional pizza players such as Donatos Pizza, Round Table Pizza [7], CiCi’s Pizza [8] and Papa Gino’s [9]. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The concept behind Punch is simple: to make authentic Neapolitan pizza in the unlikeliest of places—a state whose regional cuisine boasts the “hotdish on a stick” sold at the Minnesota State Fair. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“The fascinating thing about it is not only is the pizza better by doing it the authentic way,” Puckett said, “but it’s actually faster than the fast-food guys.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Each pizza takes only 90 seconds to bake in the ovens, which range in temperature from 800 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Punch literally brings a taste of Naples to the Midwest. The restaurant is one of 20 U.S. members of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an international trade association that seeks to “promote the culinary tradition of the Neapolitan pizza” by requiring its members to cook with authentic ingredients and wood-burning ovens. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

In keeping with this tradition, each week Punch flies in fresh ingredients, such as cheese and tomatoes, from Italy. The restaurant’s ovens, purchased in Naples, are fueled by Minnesota oak. When Sorrano and Puckett can’t bring Naples to Minnesotans, they bring the Minnesotans to Naples. Each year, Punch’s co-owners and general managers visit Naples to experience the culture and to see “how a whole city has embraced the product that we slave over,” Sorrano said. Pizza is woven into the Italian city’s “culture and social fabric,” he said. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Food critics hail Punch as one of the best pizzerias in the country. The restaurant was ranked as the fifth best pizzeria in the United States by the authors of “Everybody Loves Pizza,” who wrote, “Every element on the pies at this tiny pizzeria is perfect.” Mpls. St. Paul Magazine listed Punch among the top 50 restaurants in the Twin Cities in its March 2008 issue. Also, City Pages, a local weekly publication, selected Punch as the best gourmet pizza in the area from 2000-2005. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The locals love it too: Punch topped Minnesota Monthly’s readers’ choice awards for the best gourmet pizza last year. And when Meryl Streep was in town promoting the film “A Prairie Home [10] Companion,” she raved about Punch. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Punch’s signature item is the Margherita Extra, which is topped with basil, mozzarella di bufala and Mt. Vesuvio tomato, and is sold for $10.70. The restaurant also offers 15 other “classic” pizzas, which range from the Quattro Formaggi for $9.95 to the more exotic Borgata, which is topped with sundried tomato, goat cheese, eggplant, saracene olive and basil, and sold for $11.20. Customers can also craft their own pizzas from an array of 27 toppings. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“We have always kind of had a maniacal focus on the quality,” Sorrano said. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Each year, he said, Punch tries to get 10 percent better by breaking down the components of pizza and “really geeking out on something as simple as salt.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The restaurant also has a rigorous apprenticeship system for its staff; Puckett says it can take years to earn the privilege of holding the pizza peel. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“The difference between a great pizza and a burned pizza—or an undercooked pizza—is only a couple seconds,” Puckett said. “You have to have real talent working these ovens.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

While Punch’s original location offers full table service, the owners found that they couldn’t turn over tables fast enough. On busy nights, customers were queuing up for more than an hour. So they built their subsequent locations around a quick-service model that allows customers to eat in or takeout. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“With our sort of blazing speed of cooking, it really lends itself well,” Puckett said. “It’s kind of like the Chipotle [11] of pizza.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Sorrano added, “Operating a full-service restaurant with a front-of-the-house and a back-of-the-house overcomplicates what I would call the delivery platform for what at the end of the day is our reason for existence: the pizza.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

CHAIN FACTS

NAME: Punch Neapolitan PizzaHEADQUARTERS: MinneapolisMARKET SEGMENT: quick serviceMENU: Neapolitan pizzas and saladsTOTAL NO. OF UNITS: 5ANNUAL SALES: Between $1.5 million and $2 million per unitLEADERSHIP: co-owners John Sorrano and John PuckettYEAR FOUNDED: 1996 —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The average check for Punch customers typically ranges in the high teens, and the restaurant’s quick turnover yields annual sales of $1.5 million to $2 million for each location, Puckett said. He puts the start-up cost for a new unit at $500,000 to $750,000. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Targeted at an urban demographic, the Punch model is built around a location that averages 2,000 square feet and seats about 50 inside and 30 outside. The interior of the restaurant tries to achieve the feel of an old pizzeria. The furniture is constructed of reclaimed wood, and the walls are decorated with masks from the Italian theater. The restaurant takes its name from Pulcinella, the masked character who Puckett calls “the mascot” of authentic Neapolitan pizza. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

The kitchens are exposed so customers can watch the chefs work at the restaurant’s wood-burning oven, an experience Puckett equates with watching a Formula One pit crew. Each oven is decorated with nearly 70,000 tiles, which were hand-placed by the owners and the managerial team before each restaurant’s opening. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

When Sorrano first started Punch, he had difficulty even finding a landlord that would lease space to him. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“No one really wanted to take a chance on me for what I wanted to do,” he said. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

Even with the restaurant’s initial success, the co-owners are cautious about future expansion. —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.

“We purposely try to grow slow,” Sorrano said. “It will only grow as long as we have good sites and really good talent on the manager front.” —Ninety seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes for chefs at Punch Neapolitan Pizza to bake fresh ingredients into a pizza that prompted Meryl Streep to proclaim it is the best she has ever eaten. But even though speed is one of the concept’s main attractions, the co-owners of the quick-service pizzeria chain are expanding it slowly.