Pizza Patrón on Cracking Chicago’s Hispanic Pizza Market


It's risky to eat pizza every day of your life, and riskier still to attempt to make a living on selling pizza every day to those who scarf it down. Especially in Chicago. Deep-dish, thin crust or whatever, it's not exactly like selling one kind of pizza is going to guarantee you anything in this market, and especially in this economy. So, it's pretty bold of the Dallas-based pizza company Pizza Patrón to make its entrance into our city in September.

It's hard to make a dent here in a town so saturated with tomato sauce, dough and cheese, but as the accent over the "o" in the name indicates, it's not your typical pizza parlor. Pizza Patrón distinguishes itself by focusing on the Hispanic market, which is why 2313 Cicero Ave. in west suburban Cicero is its first location here. And just because you might not have heard of Pizza Patrón doesn't mean it's new to the biz: The chain has roughly 100 restaurants in seven states, and is continuing to grow.

To find out more about Patrón, I gave Brand Director Andrew Gamm a jingle.

You must be pretty sure of yourselves to enter a big pizza town like Chicago.

Andrew Gamm: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's for sure. I can tell you, although we know that about Chicago, our focus is obviously on the Hispanic demographic, and Chicago represents one of the largest centers in the country for that particular group, and so we have to be there and we want to establish ourselves in the Hispanic communities up there.

Other than that demographic being here, what makes you optimistic about Chicago?

Andrew Gamm: Well, I think we're optimistic because we do a pretty good job of making a strong connection with the Hispanic community wherever we go. We've been in business in Dallas for 26 years, however it wasn't until 2003, about 10 years ago, when we began franchising. At that time, we had four stores and they were all owned by the founder of the company. In 2003, we opened the first franchise location, and we've been growing ever since. You know, the Hispanic segment is obviously on the radar of marketers everywhere, but what we've learned is that this customer is growing tired of companies that just put together campaigns in Spanish, for example, by companies that aren't creating any cultural connectivity to them.

Yeah, I would assume just slapping the Spanish translation beneath the English doesn't really fire anyone up.

Andrew Gamm: Yeah. I live it everyday. Even if you take it a step further and get a brand that hires an agency, maybe a Hispanic agency that's very familiar with the culture and they put together something that's not just a straight translation but is maybe just a little bit more well together, but the brand itself doesn't have a commitment or speak the cultural language -- I think Latinos see through that, and so it's the companies that make that commitment that can be viewed as a long-term commitment to reaching them, to speaking their language and embracing their cultural heritage, I think those are the ones that are gonna find success. That's what we're all about.

Given this is going to maybe your 102nd or 103rd location -- this is going to be our first one -- I understand that you have a lot of other stores elsewhere, but do you have specific goals for the Chicago one? Or is that not how you operate these restaurants?

Andrew Gamm: Well, you know, we have internal sales goals that we obviously want to hit that the business model requires to be viable. When we approach a market like Chicago, we're more looking at the big picture. We're not coming there to dip our toe in the water, build one and see how it goes. Our plan is to expand our footprint there pretty quickly and develop the brand. Our vision is long-term, and so no matter what happens with this first location, No. 2 and 3 are close behind.

What other mistakes do you see other businesses make when trying to court the Latino demographic?

Andrew Gamm: In order to make the connection, it requires a real long-term commitment and it has to become part of your business DNA. Our core customer is a very blue-collar Hispanic. The communities we go into, you have to make a commitment to going out and finding the customer where they live and where they're at, which means, for example, we're part of a lot of community-type events that are Hispanic in nature. It requires an enormous amount of resources and time and sweat to get out there in the community to touch this customer base, and not everybody is built with the mindset of operating that way. Many companies still look to the traditional methods of advertising to reach even Latinos. Let's open our door. Let's put a great product out there. Let's get a use of traditional media to send our message. I think this particular community is different. You've gotta get out and you've gotta physically touch base and make the connection. The companies that do that, I think, we're seeing becoming more successful wit that community because it demonstrates the level of commitment you've got to build that trust and relationship with the Latinos.

Sounds like the Midwestern work ethic to me right there.

Andrew Gamm: Yeah, you know, I grew up in Milwaukee. So, I'm from there.

Can you tell me a bit about some of the promotions you've done and the reactions they've garnered, like "pizza for pesos?"

Andrew Gamm: We do it everywhere. We will be accepting pesos up there in Chicago at our locations. We got death threats at our corporate office over this. It was very controversial, national media coverage, but the thing was it was very symbolic of what we do and how far our brand is willing to go to stand up for Hispanics. Essentially, what we did was we said that something that was born in Mexico, the peso, is valid here in the US. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Illegal immigration is still a hot button, and even though money's money, it was equated with us being responsible for the downfall of America.

Yeah, why did you guys cause the downfall of America? You shouldn't have done it.

Andrew Gamm: We're working on it.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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