Innovating on a shoestring: the story of the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory

Innovating on a shoestring: the story of the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory

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By Judie Lannon

Reading an article recently about those plucky inventors who built computers or printers in their garages and went on to found major corporations reminded me of an old friend. Although new technology is at the high status end of innovation, there is a much broader range of profitable innovation to be found at the cheaper, low tech end.  While  hardly in the same league as Hewlett and Packard or Steve jobs, Bob Payton who founded the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory pursued his passion with much the same amateurism.  I know this because I was part of the early story

Bob arrived on London from Chicago about the same time I did and we found ourselves at JWT in the mid 70s.  Like many Americans arriving in the UK at the time, the absence of a lot of things we took for granted was regularly discussed - like pizza joints.  Yes, there were a few but of dubious quality and not much fun.  But Bob was a natural entrepreneur - which you can always spot because they insist on doing everything themselves. (He made a frustrating account man since he wanted to write the copy, oversee the art direction and regularly interfered with the media selection)

Ideas constantly fizzed.  My favourite non-starter was importing the helmets of his beloved football team, the Chicago Rams, (fabulous affairs with great curled ram’s horns either side) to be sold as cult motorcycle helmets.  But the real idea was the deep dish pizza which we had both gorged on at a trendy restaurant in Chicago.  I got into the act as transporter of the originals from the Chicago restaurant - frozen and packed in dry ice - when visiting friends.  Unimaginable that there was a time you could board a trans-Atlantic flight carrying 5 or 6 boxes of pizza and no one blinked an eye.

And Bob had better than a garage for his experimentation. He had the full resources of the JWT Home Economics kitchen -on the premises at 40 Berkeley Square to test the products of the many food clients the agency had. Plus the services of a Cordon Bleu cook girlfriend named Ros and an endless supply of tasters who would regularly pitch up for a free lunch.  It turned out that British tastes demanded much spicier sausage meat and various other cheese and herb adjustments, but the deep dish crust remained as its differentiating feature. A number of Chicago Pizza Pie Factory venues and a venture into ribs with The Chicago Rib Shack meant that when he sold the company in 1990 the business was pulling in a turnover of £35 m.

Bob’s entrepreneurial instincts and constant surveillance of the zeitgeist meant that he was always destined to run his own business. Those of us with corporate jobs, by definition, don’t have the temperament but we should still be capable of keeping an eye on where culture is going. A recent article in Strategy and Business provides a handy list of ways of looking at markets for fresh product ideas.

Or, better yet, read the lead article in this issue of Market Leader ‘Cultural Innovation: triumph of a better ideology’ as the most efficient way to invent a new brand without huge investments in technology.

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 05 Jul 2012
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