Rick Barsness was a pretty good hockey player when he was a kid. His high school ice hockey team made it to the state championship in North Dakota. Unfortunately, his dad never managed to come out to see him play. Not even once.
The trials of his boyhood stuck with Rick, but life went on. He married his wife Cheryl and they became young entrepreneurs in the pizza business in Victoria, Texas, living out of the back of their first store as it was being built. Yet all the time, Rick had a boyhood dream he’d let dance through his mind from time to time. He wanted to create a themed restaurant/family entertainment center – a place where families could come together and spend time, eat together, talk, play games and have fun. The kind of place where Rick wished he could have spent time with his Dad and just hang out. Rick kept working, but that dream was never far from his mind.
Fifties, Family & Food!
Over time, the Barsness’ family grew, and so did their business. Then, in 2002, Rick and Cheryl finally built their dream restaurant/family entertainment center – Springfield, Mo.’s very own Incredible Pizza Company. Success was instantaneous. By 2003, the company had franchised the concept and opened a Tulsa, Okla. location as well as a Warr Acres, Okla. location. Today, the company has more than 50 franchises in the works and its original goal to sell 100 franchises in the next five years now seems all too conservative. Recently, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) and its 5,000 members selected Incredible Pizza Company as one of the top five family entertainment centers in the world.
So what exactly is Incredible Pizza Company all about? Well, it may seem like more fluff than substance as you enter one of these blue building fun and food centers, but don’t be fooled. Incredible Pizza Company is a well-honed concept backed by a team of dedicated professionals, a set of tested systems, automated machinery, and a ton of ingenuity.
From the `50s music in the parking lot to the classic ’57 Chevy just inside the doors, America’s Incredible Pizza Company is a family entertainment extravaganza. In an average area of about 65,000 to 70,000 square feet (the size of your average Target or K-mart store) Incredible Pizza Company includes an all-you-can-eat high quality food buffet, themed dining areas, private party rooms and a fairgrounds fun center loaded with games, rides and attractions for family members of all ages.
Guests can choose from a buffet where items are prepared fresh daily. There are two pizza bars, pasta, baked potatoes, soup, an 80-item salad bar, and desserts. Guests also have their choice of four different eating environments: a Route 66 `50s-style Diner, a `50s style Gymnasium, the Starlight Drive-In Movie Theater, or the `50s Family Room.
Then, it’s off to the fairgrounds! Incredible Pizza Company’s kid-safe children’s play area is constantly monitored by team members. Complex rides like go-karts bumper cars, a historic Route 66 mini-golf course and more than 100 interactive video and redemption games are included. All are rated “G” for good, clean entertainment. The entire complex is all indoors in a smoke-and-alcohol-free environment.
“We appeal to busy working families who need a one stop, affordable, safe and fun place to take the family,” says Leigh Choate, vice president of marketing for Incredible Pizza Company. “Moms like our salad bar and the safe environment we offer. Dads love our food and the kids love everything else!” Incredible Pizza Company currently has six stores on the ground. In addition to its Springfield, Tulsa and Warr Acres stores, there are other locations in Conroe, Houston and Sugar Land, Texas. Its corporate headquarters are located in Tulsa.
Protecting the Brand
With an idea this good, you’d think the folks at Incredible Pizza Company might be ready to barrel into market after market and pocket the profits. No way. “We’re very cautious about how we are implementing our stores,” says Larry Abbe, president of Incredible Pizza Company. “We do a great deal of research before going into markets. We don’t want to blast markets and burn up in a couple years. We want long-term success and long-term success for our franchisees.”
Abbe is keeper of the Incredible Pizza Company brand and a long-time friend and colleague of Rick Barsness. “Rick’s the visionary, I’m the `get it done’ guy. I like that role. Our brand is unique in that we incorporate our corporate culture into our brand. We definitely have core values. We want to deliver world-class family entertainment and we’re passionate about what we do. We have some very good systems in place and it’s the integrity of those systems that makes it all work. But, we’re certainly not afraid to change if we need to. We just always go back to those core values and questions before we make a decision on anything. If they don’t fit into the core values, we don’t do it.”
With six Incredible Pizza Company stores slated for opening in 2006, one of the busiest employees in the company is its franchise guru, Scott Axon. “I’d like to tell you we have an exclusive marketing strategy in place for our success so far, but lately it’s just been Rick and I returning phone calls. We’ve never done any exposure or advertising. The more and more we open stores, the word just gets out and the phones start to ring.”
While two new Incredible Pizza stores are under construction in Victoria and San Antonio, Texas, Scott is looking into the details of secondary market demographics. “We’ve been opening in predominantly metropolitan areas but it’s difficult to go into an area of 70,000 people with a 65,000 square foot facility and succeed. So we see our role as a franchiser as the visionary or test market. It’s our job to prove the concept with our own money and once it’s proven, then we offer it to our franchisees. We’re very sensitive to this issue. It’s their money and one of the things people look for in a franchise is reduced risk.”
Risk, indeed. Incredible Pizza Company is not your average franchise. It takes a $5 – $9 million investment to build a store, which consists of 250 employees, three distinct business units, a game room, food service areas, attractions and a highly automated, complex environment. “You can have the best franchise in the world, but if its hard to replicate it’s not going to work. We have a complex operation, but we’ve made it easy to implement by simplifying our systems,” says Axon.
Despite the high price tag, the phones keep ringing at Incredible Pizza Company and more is on tap for the coming year. According to vice president of marketing, Leigh Choate the company has a variety of specialty marketing programs in place such as birthday parties, corporate teambuilding events, seniors’ events and teenage prom and grad nights. Incredible Pizza Company is always testing new games and activities for its fairgrounds area. Paintball and extreme sports like rope courses and rock climbing are currently being tested for possible inclusion in future stores.