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Nick’s Pizza & Pub CEO on the benefits of the discount

Offering savings during a downturn helps customer loyalty, Nick Sarillo says

Nick Sarillo, chief executive of Nick’s Pizza & Pub, which has two locations in Elgin and Crystal Lake, Ill., noticed early in the recession that fewer families were coming into his restaurants. So at the request of his servers — some of whom had neighbors or spouses losing their jobs in the downturn — he launched Half-Off Dine-in Mondays and Half-Off Takeout Tuesdays at his restaurants to help ease the financial pressure customers were feeling.

The promotions Sarillo thought would last a couple of months celebrate their second anniversary this month, and in that time he maintains that Nick’s has passed on significant savings to the community. Monday and Tuesday are now the pizzerias’ biggest nights, and Sarillo calculates that Nick’s has saved customers nearly $1.07 million on more than 200,000 pizzas.

Sarillo spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about the long-term benefits of providing a little relief to guests in times of need.

How did Nick’s go from recognizing customers’ concerns about the economy to developing a generous, longstanding offer?

A few months before we started the half-off nights, we’d done one day in April where we gave back to anybody that came in on this one Tuesday. We said, “We’re taking care of the tab.” Since then, we saw the economy slow down even more, and it was noticeable that there were fewer families in the restaurants. Elgin had felt the impact more than Crystal Lake, and some of our servers there were moms from the community, and one of their husbands lost his job. She said, “We can’t go out anymore because we’re worried that my husband won’t get another job for a while.” So the servers came up with this deal to give back to families and get them back in the restaurant.

So the staff didn’t need much convincing to get on board with this offer?

We are so much a part of each community that each restaurant is in. We have profit sharing in our teams. These individuals know that if we do half-off, we’ll take a big hit on our profits — not just for me, but also for the servers participating in the plan. They said, “That’s OK; we’re OK with that.” It’s been tough for us to go through tough times, too, because there’s less for all of us. That’s the encouraging part, though. Now that we’re two years in, I think this is something to celebrate. We stuck it out and pitched in and did our part. Eventually, we’ll go back to normal, but we’ll say we went through this together, and we’ll be stronger than ever as a community.

When this program eventually ends, how will you measure the return on investment for an offer that gave so much for so long?

That’s an opportunity for many businesses. So many are so shortsighted and say, “I need to get my profits now.” It’s going to be a long-term ROI. We want our company to be around a long time — we’ve created a lot of tradition and seen kids grow up in our restaurants, and we want to be there when those kids have kids. They’re going to remember Nick’s.

There are going to be franchised restaurants opening up next to us, and we’ll go through competitive times, and maybe this [promotion] makes them come to us instead of a restaurant that doesn’t give back. We’re already seeing this. Several guests have pulled me aside and said: “Thanks. I haven’t worked in a year, and we don’t go out anymore except for going to Nick’s on Mondays.”

What’s been the benefit of having such a big traffic driver on Mondays and Tuesdays when dining-out traffic is normally down?

We didn’t see this happening as big as it has. Who knew the economy would be so bad for so long? We took a mundane Monday and Tuesday and made them vibrant, energized nights of the week, and there’s a buzz about going out on those nights to Nick’s. Fridays and Saturdays are probably a little slower because of this, but we used to have 10 people to staff the restaurants on a Monday, and now we have 42 people in to staff them. Talk about creating jobs!

But there’s another benefit on other days, too. Lots of guests come in on the weekend and tell us, “Because of what you’re doing on Mondays and Tuesdays, we’re coming in on the weekend, too.” We’ve also modeled for other businesses a way to give back. I’ve seen more and more restaurants in our area do deals on Monday and Tuesday now. We’re happy to share this with other restaurants. More competition just makes us all better.

So if you don’t mind other restaurants trying a promotion like this, what should they know about executing it?

Trust in your team, and don’t have fear. I’ve got to tell you, I was a little scared of this. I wanted to give back like the servers were saying we should, but I was afraid of, “What if we do this for a couple months and we lose money and go under?”

We track our numbers, and I’ve kept the team involved in tracking them, so they know the benefits of what was working and what wasn’t. Now they’re on board with all these decisions, and that makes me feel safer.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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