Prize-winning pizza sparks sales boom

Winning the title of best pie at the American Pizza Championships put David Smith's remote pizzeria on the map.

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NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business) -- For people who love pizza, Emporium, Pa., has in the last few months become a destination.

The small town, a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh, is home toPizza Palace Plus, and to owner David Smith's award-winning Cajun chicken pizza. Smith piles mozzarella and provolone atop a thin coat of spicy sauce, followed by diced marinated chicken breast, bacon, celery, parmesan and Romano cheeses, blue cheese dressing, and a dusting of oregano - a recipe that won Smith a first-place victory at the American Pizza Championship last September, and has been luring pizza aficionados to Emporium ever since.

It also earned him a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team and a chance to compete in the America's Plate Competition, an international culinary contest that took place Monday at the New York Pizza Show. Award-winning pizzaiolos from Italy, Finland, China and Australia joined Smith in New York for a shot at the silver trophy plate. There, in front of a crowd of salivating spectators, the chefs constructed their signature pizzas. Ingredients included the familiar and the exotic: mozzarella, salami, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, seafood - even reindeer meat.

The America's Plate Competition is just one of many pizza competitions held all over the world. For small business owners like Smith, these events are publicity gold mines: When Smith took home his first big prize last September, he saw an instant spike in sales.

"After we won that - the best pizza in the U.S. - people drove from out of town, as far as six hours away, just to taste our pizza," he says. "They said it was the best pizza they'd ever had."

Smith, 45, and his wife Marlene, 40, bought the restaurant in 2001; before that, Smith spent almost 20 years working in metallurgy factories, while Marlene stayed home with the kids (they have six, ages six to 18). One day, while out to lunch at the Pizza Palace, Marlene struck up a conversation with the owners, Denny and Jeanne Miglicio, who mentioned they were thinking of selling the restaurant. When she told David later, he surprised her by asking, "How much?"

"I just couldn't see myself working in a factory for another 30 years," Smith says. "I wanted to do something different, and being my own boss was appealing."

So although neither he nor Marlene had any restaurant experience or culinary training, they bought the restaurant. David takes care of the finances, paperwork, marketing, and even makes deliveries, while Marlene manages the kitchen. Their three oldest kids help out - 18-year old Alex serves food and chats up customers, 16-year-old Caleb cooks, and 11-year-old Cassidy makes the dough.

Staying active in the community helps maintain a loyal customer base, but winning a national competition has brought in out-of-towners in search of a transcendent pizza experience.

"In a town of a couple thousand people in the middle of nowhere, there's only so much room for growth," Smith says. "When people started coming from outside the area, that really improved the business."

Like Smith, fellow U.S. Pizza Team members Jason Samosky and Michael Amheiser use pizza competitions to improve their businesses.

"Going to competitions stirs a lot of interest," says Amheiser, owner of Pizza Dock in Fredericktown, Ohio. "People hear about you and they want to try your product. If it's good, then they keep coming back."

Samosky, owner of Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria in Valley City, Ohio, agrees. He won his first title at the "Pizza Pizzazz" competition in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005.

"It tripled my business," he says. "I was on all four local news channels, in the paper and on the radio. We had two-hour waiting lists."

When he opened his restaurant in 2003, it was strictly a family affair: Samosky cooked alongside his mom and his cousin, while his sister and aunt worked up front. Now he has 13 employees. In a typical year, Samosky might participate in as many as eight competitions, including the American Pizza Championship in Orlando, which he won in 2005 and 2006. In May 2007, he traveled to Italy for the International Pizza Competition of Naples. Amheiser and Smith will be going to France later this month for the International Pizza Contest, part of the Paris Pizza and Pasta Expo.

Back at this week's America's Plate Competition in New York, the judges - a panel of pizzeria owners, an instructor from the Institute of Culinary Education, and last year's winner, Fabian Martin of Spain - dove into Smith's Cajun chicken pizza.

They examined the thickness and consistency of the crust. They gauged the spiciness and texture of the sauce. They debated his choice of cheeses. Their goal: Pinpointing the perfect combination of creativity, technical proficiency, commercial viability, and, of course, taste.

Smith landed points for viability, since he used inexpensive, commonly available ingredients, and for the overall construction of his pizza. But the judges felt that the hot Cajun sauce overwhelmed the pizza's other flavors. He ended the competition with high marks - but not high enough. First place went to Jarmo Valtari of Finland, whose reindeer and mushroom pie surprised and delighted the judges.

Still, Smith said he is glad he came. He'll use the judges' comments to fine-tune his recipe before trying again in Paris.

"Even if you don't win, just being there is good publicity," he says. "It's worth it to promote the business." To top of page

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