This 81-unit chain honors its original founders, who fostered a sense of family and community, while surging ahead with tech-based advancements to spur lofty growth goals.
In 1961, Italian immigrant Mike Valerio and his wife, Helen, took a chance on opening Piece o’ Pizza in East Boston, Massachusetts. But when it was renamed Papa Gino’s in 1968, business really kicked into high gear, eventually expanding as Mike offered managers the opportunity to franchise their own locations. “They’d visit restaurants and say hi to everyone on the team,” recounts Deena McKinley, chief experience officer for New England Authentic Eats, the parent company that acquired Papa Gino’s in 2019. “We have people working today who have been with the company 50 years, and they still talk about Mike and Helen and the passion they had.”
Now grown to 81 company-owned locations (with more on the way in 2022) served by a central commissary, the company strives to maintain that personal touch, but it’s also charging full steam ahead on 21st-century advancements. To better serve customers, a revamped loyalty program and a new website and app will premiere in October. In recent years, digital marketing has emerged as a strong focus—utilizing its current customer database to drive in-store visits; investing in SEO, paid search and social media; and adding third-party delivery and text marketing.
Now, the company is eyeing further tech upgrades, like kiosks, QR code payment and voice ordering. “I was blown away by how deep of an emotional connection people have with this brand,” McKinley says. “Plus, we have an amazing data warehouse, and we want to make precise use of that data to focus on loyalty, segmentation and digital marketing. Even with social media, it’s about meeting the guest where they are, making that emotional connection and driving frequency of visits.”
But Papa Gino’s also maintains its human touch, offering a “surprise and delight” factor for fans, like when it recently doled out more than 2 million free pizzas and sandwiches (with its sister brand, D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches, which features in Papa Gino’s co-branded locations) as consolation in the wake of the Boston Celtics’ loss in the NBA finals. Meanwhile, the Pizza My Heart program asks locals for nominations for free pizza deliveries, often given out to otherwise unheralded local heroes, like first responders and teachers.
Despite tech-savvy upgrades, connecting employees and communities with the brand remains a priority. “The key to our success has been the people, hands down,” McKinley says. “People have to love what they do and feel a passion for it; that comes through. You have to believe in the product and brand, and the Valerio family instilled that pride and that personal touch. Community relationships have been the ties that bind—when guests feel connected, they feel good about doing business with us.”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor and the editor of PizzaVegan.com.