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Front and Center: Be happy it’s Pizza Rita

June and Brian Dickmann are owners of Pizza Rita, a four-store chain of pizza restaurants they founded and named after their daughter, Rita. They are standing in their store at 502 W. Indiana Ave. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
June and Brian Dickmann are owners of Pizza Rita, a four-store chain of pizza restaurants they founded and named after their daughter, Rita. They are standing in their store at 502 W. Indiana Ave. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

Brian Dickmann insists his Pizza Rita pizzas are Spokane’s best.

In fact, he guarantees it.

“We don’t say your money back if you’re not satisfied,” says Dickmann. “We say, if you’re not happy.

“There’s satisfied, there’s happy, and there’s eternal bliss.

“We don’t guarantee eternal bliss – we’re not the Dalai Lama – but we do guarantee happy.”

Predictably, some people take advantage of Dickmann’s generous policy.

“But I’d rather be scammed 100 times than lose one good customer,’’ he says.

Dickmann and his wife, June, opened their first pizza shop on West Indiana almost three decades ago.

“Our oldest child is named Rita, so Pizza Rita is sort of a play on ‘pizzeria,’ ” Dickmann explained.

The couple have four locations: the North Side, near north, Spokane Valley and the downtown STA Plaza. But 80 percent of their sales are delivery or carryout.

During a recent interview, Dickmann discussed working with Michael Jackson, conventional wisdom and the busiest days of the year. (Hint: It’s not Super Bowl Sunday.)

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Dickmann: Sedalia, Missouri, a town of about 25,000.

S-R: What brought you here?

Dickmann: My brother was a nuclear engineer at the naval shipyards in Bremerton. My parents and sister moved to Western Washington for its milder weather. When I graduated from high school, I followed them out.

S-R: What were your interests growing up?

Dickmann: Sports. In the late ’60s, there were over 700 kids in the local soccer league. So we’d play in the morning, eat those long (powdered candy) Pixy Stix for lunch, then play again in the afternoon. I also ran track and cross country, but that was a lot of pizzas ago.

S-R: Did you cook?

Dickmann: No. I still don’t. I can’t cook at all. (laugh)

S-R: What was your first job?

Dickmann: I sold pop up and down the stands at the Missouri State Fair, which booked big acts. The first night I worked, in 1972, the Jackson Five performed. The free show started at 8 o’clock, so people were getting in their seats at 4:30. It was great!

S-R: Who performed the next night?

Dickmann: Lawrence Welk.

S-R: How long did you have that job?

Dickmann: I started out when I was 12 and continued through high school. Later I did the same thing at the Kingdome.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Dickmann: I went one year to Olympic College in Bremerton, then transferred to Central Washington University.

S-R: What career did you envision?

Dickmann: My degree is in accounting and finance, but I wouldn’t have lasted very long in an office setting. I wanted to be in a business where customers wanted to be – not a mortuary or dentist office. Everybody likes getting pizza.

S-R: How did you learn the business?

Dickmann: I worked for Pizza Hut and Godfather’s before I opened Pizza Rita.

S-R: Tell me about starting a business.

Dickmann: When I was 28, I told my dad I planned to sell pizzas, and he said, “You know, there are a lot of pizza places.” And I said, “Well, that means there are a lot of people who eat pizza.” Conventional wisdom says don’t open a pizza shop because there are a lot of them. But conventional wisdom only gets you conventional results. And a small business person can’t survive on conventional results.

S-R: How much did it cost to start your business?

Dickmann: Seventeen grand. A lady who taught at North Central had had a pizza place in the building, but it was more for her students – sort of a hobby. Right away we were doing more in two days than she did in a week.

S-R: How long before you gained traction?

Dickmann: About three months. When my wife said she was pregnant with our third child, I got traction real quick.

S-R: You said you don’t cook. How did you come up with “Spokane’s best pizza”?

Dickmann: Building a pizza is about a tenth as hard as making a hamburger once you have your dough recipe, good ingredients and your sauce. Our dough recipe is a modified version of one we got out of a book. We only use tomatoes from one company in Stanislaus County, California. The sauce was the hardest part.

S-R: How did you perfect that?

Dickmann: After a couple of years, I realized we needed a better sauce. So I went into mad scientist mode, making 12 versions at a time, each with a minor change. I experimented with sugar and cinnamon and fennel and minced garlic and granulated garlic – even carrots, because they neutralize the acid in tomatoes.

S-R: Why do you consider your pizzas Spokane’s best?

Dickmann: A lot of it is about the pizza. But food is good almost everywhere. I tell my guys, “We’ve got to be the friendliest.” If we send out 100 deliveries a night, we will make a mistake. But if for any reason – any reason – you’re not completely happy, we’ll gladly – gladly – remake your pizza and redeliver it. I tell my employees, “Don’t say some guy is trying to scam us. You’re not here to be a detective, and it’s not your money. It’s my money.”

S-R: What’s your biggest challenge?

Dickmann: Spreading the word. That’s why we hand out a lot of coupons good for free slices of pizza.

S-R: Did you have a mentor?

Dickmann: My wife, who’s also my partner. And I never mind her saying “I told you so” when I don’t take her advice and it doesn’t work out.

S-R: What ideas have worked out?

Dickmann: Welcoming any and all pizza coupons, discounts and offers. Franchisees have the same expenses as me, plus a 6 to 8 percent (royalties) guillotine hanging over their head.

S-R: What else has worked?

Dickmann: Our 5-pounder was another good idea. If you were purchasing gold, you wouldn’t buy a “large” nugget. You’d want to know the weight. Calling a pizza “large” doesn’t mean anything. I’m telling you ours weighs 5 pounds.

S-R: What skills learned earlier in life translated to this job?

Dickmann: I sold concessions up and down stadium stairs until I was 22, and got pretty good. And I still do it – I sell my pizzas in the stands at Indians games. People who know I’m the boss say, “Why don’t you have a kid do it?” And I say, “Because they don’t do it right.” It takes a knack – walking slowly, making eye contact. It’s also good publicity. And I’d rather do that than be making pizzas somewhere or adding up columns of numbers.

S-R: Did the recession have much impact?

Dickmann: It made employees a lot more serious about their jobs. (laugh)

S-R: What’s the age range of your employees?

Dickmann: Most are in their early 20s – college students – which works out real good, because I’m glad to accommodate them with hours that fit their academic load from semester to semester.

S-R: How much do they earn?

Dickmann: We want to be the employer of choice for people looking for part-time work, because you can get some real good part-time employees. Ours start at minimum, but quickly move up. Plus drivers usually get $2 or $3 in tips per delivery. And they can move up to assistant managers, who make $25,000 to $30,000, or even managers, who make $60,000 to $70,000 a year.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?

Dickmann: Friendliness. You can teach anything else.

S-R: What factors affect pizza sales?

Dickmann: Weather is big. When it snowed on a recent Friday, we had a bang-up night, because people were leaving work early and it was taking them forever to get home. The next day snow was still on the ground, but no one was in a hurry, so we were back to a regular Saturday.

S-R: What else?

Dickmann: Sporting events. But the two biggest days of the year are Halloween, which is huge, and the night before Thanksgiving, because the oven is full of the turkey or pies, and guests are arriving early.

S-R: How do you respond when suddenly you’re super busy?

Dickmann: I have what I call “murderers’ row” (the nickname given the first six hitters in the great 1927 Yankees lineup) – old-timers who work events like Hoopfest, and gladly help out in emergencies. And when we’re shorthanded because of a big snow dump like back in ’08, they make loads of tips. The kid managing a franchise pizza place doesn’t have that kind of flexibility.

S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?

Dickmann: Our mission statement is “the finest pizza served by the friendliest people while showing our sincere appreciation.” And I tell the guys, “I’m not talking about saying, ‘Have a nice day, have a nice day.’ I’m talking about sincere,” because customers don’t have to come to us. We’re not Avista. Our customers have choices.

S-R: What’s your goal?

Dickmann: I want Pizza Rita to be an extension of myself and my family – something I can be proud of when I walk down the street and people say, “Hey, that’s the Pizza Rita guy.”

S-R: What’s your secret talent?

Dickmann: I have probably 200 phone numbers in my head – involuntarily.

S-R: Your own cellphone number is on all your advertising. How many phone calls from customers do you get?

Dickmann: Surprisingly few.

S-R: Any favorite customer reactions?

Dickmann: Years ago, when we changed our sauce, one regular customer called up and said, “I don’t like the new sauce as much, but everybody else in my house does.” So I sent her $40 in Rita Bucks and said, “Just order yours with light sauce or fresh tomatoes.” A year later, the post office ordered a bunch of pizzas, and who placed the order? That lady. She decided who the post office ordered from. The lesson: Every customer counts.

This interview has been condensed. Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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