He adds that when such an event happens, they will have lines of cars down the street waiting to come in, but they anticipate that. “It's a tough time for the employees, but we staff up and there's a ton of labor there to handle crowds,” Wakeman says. “When we open a new location, there's a fair amount of curiosity in the market. We usually have a huge opening week. When we do that blow out and give away burgers, it's out of hand, but we think it's a nice way to not only get people to try to brand who aren’t familiar, but also engender some goodwill within the community.”
The primarily Midwestern-based Toppers Pizza offers its own spin on free. Whenever the chain opens a new store, it gives away free food to the first 50 people who order on opening day. That comes in the form of 52 certificates that alternate each week between pizzas and Topperstix, the brand’s signature cheesy breadsticks, which it eagerly promotes on a regular basis.
“Particularly in markets outside of our core where we're trying to teach people what Topperstix are, we'll do a giveaway, a free single order of Topperstix for a day,” says Scott Iversen, vice president of marketing for Toppers Pizza. “It's a way of generating word of mouth. We've done a few of those outside of core markets, and we've also done them on college campuses when students come back for the fall semester. Sometimes we have a Topperstix Day where we're introducing people coming into a college town, that didn't have a Toppers in their hometown, to try this awesome product.”
When it comes to introducing new items like its line of quesadillas and dessert monkey bread, Toppers will create an incentive such as a free quesadilla or free monkey bread with the purchase of any large pizza. “We believe if we can get it in their mouth, the customer is likely to order it again,” Iversen says. “That’s our strategy around new product categories. There's always some element of a free offer with the purchase of something to get people to try it.”
Iversen says the redemption rate of their free food certificates is around the 70 percent range, and these encourage the purchase of other items, which means the check average on free food is like the company’s regular average check. “A lot of times people share them with friends and family and they'll try other things on the menu,” he says. “It could be seen as giving away all this free food, but then we're also getting back on the additional items that are purchased on that transaction.”
Toppers uses promotions to drive word-of-mouth advertising. As Iversen notes, the company does not have the huge budget of larger chains, so it wants to get the public buzzing about its food. “Maybe somebody doesn't want to spend 24 to 48 hours camping out to try to get the free food,” Iversen says. “But we've logged Toppers in their minds as that new pizza place that gave away free food.”
The biggest challenge, Iversen says, is gearing up to handle orders for the day of a free giveaway. While Toppers customers understand that a big promotion will necessitate a slightly longer wait time than normal, it cannot be too much longer. For any company, the promise of free cannot be compromised by subpar service. “We’re trying to maintain that same level of service on those big days like that so we're setting the right expectation for the customer,” Iversen says. “You’ve got to be well prepared for those days because it's a whole lot of order activity all at once. Being prepared to handle it and put your best service foot forward is key.”