Ryan Michael slice interview

Episode 7: Ryan Michael

Ryan Michael, a senior director of product at Slice, talks about the pizza business. Slice helps independent pizza shops utilize technology and data. We talk about the challenges that independent pizza operates face and how technology helps in three ways — connecting with customers, managing orders and running the business. Ryan emphasized that pizzerias can start small, but the impacts snowball over time.

Episode transcription 

James: Welcome to the show, Ryan.

RyanThank you, James. Appreciate you having me.

James: No problem at all. Maybe give a little bit about your background and what is your role at Slice?

Ryan: Sure. So I’ll start with my role at Slice. I lead our product team. So the product managers are the ones who set forward the requirements of the type of products that we want to be building for restaurants. And also we have a design team that helps to do that. And then I also look over product marketing team. So on the tech side, everything that is in the kitchen or the products that shops are interfacing with is built by my team with the engineers, and then I also run the team that helps to bring that to market. Before that, I spent nine and a half years at Google where I was had a whole host of roles. Lived in West Africa for a bit. Worked in our emerging markets team, but then spent the last four years working on our Google Maps product and various roles, but was focused specifically with working with small and medium sized businesses, which led me to become aware of and interested in place, because at that point I was working with retailers, service companies and also restaurants, and I was really interested in the restaurant space, wanted to go deep on thaJames: And Slice specifically helps pizza shops like how have you been able to develop a company specifically around such a niche market

Ryan: Yeah, it’s a great question. So it kind of came to be very organically. So our founder and CEO Illah Cella, is a third generation pizza person, as he likes to say. He has a ton of family and the business is what he grew up around in. And when he started getting requests from them to help, essentially help them with their technology as the world is changing, he realized that there is a business around that, and then he started in this organic way helping these pizzerias that he knew and then step back inside. It’s actually an incredibly large market within the food industry. The GMV is in the billions and we have tens of thousands of independent pizzerias, let alone from the big four, as we call them. And he realized that to focus and to do things in a, let’s say, most effective or efficient way, we wanted to focus on those independent, local pizzerias and essentially help them get to, from a technology standpoint, the same to the same level as a Domino’s or Papa John’s, if you will.

James: Because I think Domino’s specifically and probably also Papa John’s were some of the first companies to really develop online ordering and push it. Is that correct?

Ryan: Oh, very much. If you look at Domino’s stock performance and actually kind of the inflection point, which they had a couple, let’s say eight or nine years ago, it was really the adoption of technology that got them there. And you can see we can talk about this. It’s a really interesting topic, but the ability to use data to help you run your business, they were kind of the forefront of that. They were the pioneers. They said, okay, we are we are essentially a tech company that helps franchisees make pizza and they built this entire infrastructure and platform behind that, which is allowed them to run at such an efficient scale over the last decade or so.

James: My first job when I was a kid was as a Domino’s Pizza delivery driver. And a long time ago, like, it was a whole different world. It was back in the, you know, answer over the phone, use a map like it was a whole different world back then where it was pizza delivery, where you’re shining a flashlight trying to find the house. I mean, it’s amazing how much technology has changed the pizza business. I guess if you’re an independent, local pizzeria, I guess they’re about 18,000 of them. Kind of. What challenges do they face in today’s environment?

Ryan: Yeah, that’s it’s a great question. So we kind of let me put forward a framework actually that I might refer back to over time, which is when I started this Slice. We want to step back and say, what are the things that pizzerias struggle with? Essentially, what are the jobs that they need to do? And so we use this jobs to be done framework and really boiled it down into three large themes or groupings, which is connecting with customers, managing orders and running the business. And so essentially these are things or jobs that shops need to do on a daily or weekly basis, usually daily basis, and is found across all the different types of shops, whether you’re very sophisticated and tech savvy or you just are an artisan and want to make pizza, that’s kind of the spectrum. And I’ve interacted with shops at any point on that spectrum. No matter where you are in terms of your business, you actually need to do these three things, and the level to which you struggle with each of them varies depending usually on the technology you’re using or the situation that you’re in. But if you if you go through it so connecting with customers, there’s new and existing customers and the new customers shops don’t necessarily understand how DMS work or market areas or what is the radius around my story, which I’m most likely to get shops, things that Domino’s and some of these more technologically advanced businesses are able to help them with. And we, through our data, can help them to identify what those options are. Also, existing users, this is harder to. Without technology. The old school way of doing this is just memorizing or making notes in in a journal or something. Understanding. Oh, when Barbara Jane comes in and this is what they like. I’ve seen a ton of stuff. Just memorize this. But we think or we actually have technology that can help them to do that with existing and then managing orders. Of course, there is the receiving of the order, the processing of the order, and then the handoff, whether that is pickup or delivery. And then running the business we think of as, you know, this is everything from staffing and training to managing your panel and making menu pricing decisions, which is really a hot topic right now with inflation and whatnot. But that’s kind of the framework. And I can come back to that as we talk. But that’s that’s essentially what we think of in terms of here are the problems that shops have and here are ways in which we can solve them.

James: Yeah, I would imagine a lot of that what you’re talking about involves capturing first party data when you’re ordering, right. How important is capturing data and using that to help the restaurant’s operation?

Ryan: I think it’s critical. If you step back so first party data is always better than third party because it’s your business. And then you use the third party data or the industry data to kind of supplement what you are doing for your individual shop. If you look at it on the customer piece, for example, without capturing or aggregating and storing that data and then making it available or readily accessible, you won’t know who your best customers are. You might have a sense, but you don’t necessarily know. We can’t quantify that. You don’t know how to engage with them for orders. With the data, you can actually do inventory planning a lot better. I’ve seen countless shops that go in shop, spend time in their stores. I’ve seen the food waste and everyone knows it’s a problem, especially with prices the way they are. But it’s very common to to prep 20 pies and you only sell ten that day. And some shops have a better system for expecting or forecasting what their orders are going to be. But there is this idea of the more robust the data you have, the better you can manage your order and your inventory. Also delivery. How do you optimize your own fleet? At what point do you say, Oh, actually I need help from some third party services? You won’t really know that. You can kind of back of the napkin estimate what you need, but you won’t necessarily know the right way to look at it or you won’t be able to make the right decisions will say without the data. And the same goes for running the business and the menu pricing and things like that.

James: So imagine going into a bunch of pizza shops. You get to eat a lot of pizza. You have any particular pizza you’ve found that you really enjoy?

Ryan: Oh, yeah, I, I was just in New York City, actually. So Slice is headquartered in New York City. And I did a pizza tour, if you will. And what I love about the pizza world is the more the deeper you go in. You realize there are a lot of different types of pizza, right? You have the classic New York style. You have the Chicago style. The Detroit style is incredibly popular right now. You have the Sicilian slice and that the New Haven, there’s a whole host of different varieties. I would say I’m a classic New York pizza style person, but I have grown a proclivity for ERA, a love of the Detroit Pizza lately.

James: I’m not familiar with Detroit Pizza. Can explain that style?

Ryan: I am not the best to explain the intrinsic details of it, but essentially it’s a square pie. The sauce is put on at the end, so you have a really fresh tasting marinara sauce and the cheese. Because of the way the pan is, the cheese runs all the way to the edge and it kind of gets crusty as it hits the edge of the pan and kind of rounds out the corners really nicely. If you have any near you, I would highly recommend checking it out.

James: Yeah, I mean, all the other styles you’ve talked about I was familiar with, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of or, you know, seen a place that offers that.

Ryan: Yeah. And that’s one of the things actually James’s with the data. Right. We can see that is becoming more and more popular. So you have shops in New York City who are selling Detroit style or San Francisco who are now making a separate version. You know, they have their core business, but they’re now because it’s showing that is trending, we can show like, hey, this is actually becoming more popular in your area, your neighborhood. Also across the country, some shops are adopting, creating new types of pies, which is really cool.

James: Now, is that the kind of thing that you would, you know, like through a, you know, a newsletter or something like let your customers know, hey, this is a trend you need to be aware of.

Ryan: Yeah. So on National Pizza Day, which is just a couple of weeks ago, we sent out a State of the Union type of like a state of pizza. And by state listed out here are the top pizzas and the trends and things like that. But we do have a monthly newsletter that we send out to shops and, you know, show them here, you know, not just the trends in terms of pizza, but here’s what the industry looks like. Here’s how your shop is performing in relation to others and things like that.

James: Do you think pizza owners, like especially independent owners, really understand fully what the benefits of data can be?

Ryan: So historically Slice has been the forefront proponent to pizzerias of you need to digitally transform your business and I think. We’ve had some success with that, and there’s still a ways to go. What I found just working like, let’s say a micro-level with a shop, it typically has to get to this point of an aha moment. So for us, we help use you start to get digital orders, which is great because it’s more efficient. You have a lot fewer mistakes because you’re not scribbling on a piece of paper. The order. Digital orders also have a much higher basket value or ROV. So in all, that’s usually the first thing because it affects the bottom line of shop, say, oh, digital orders are really good thing. And then the next step is to say, Well, okay, now that you believe digital orders are a good thing, how can we do more of that? Or that’s the question they will ask us and say like, okay, now I see this value, how do I do more? And it takes for some shops to catch on to that right away and some they just don’t or they’re too busy. I’ve had multiple shots. I think I references earlier this. I just want to make pizza. That’s my love, that’s my passion. I know how to make a really good pizza and that’s what I want to focus on. Ideally, technology just solves all these other things for me. So the disconnect there is they have to, you know, at least look at the numbers or at least understand and buy into that story before it can solve the problems for them. Yeah, I guess that’s a long way to say. It’s very nuanced across the spectrum, but I think when we can get a shot to that aha moment and they truly understand the value and they see it affecting the actual business itself, the bottom line, that’s when we really start to see traction and then it just kind of snowballs from there and we get more and more data to give them and they can actually make better and better decisions and it just continues on kind of a virtuous cycle.

James: I do hear that a lot in the restaurant business where like, you know, restaurateurs went into the restaurant business to be, you know, to make pizza or whatever the particular might be. They didn’t go into it to be technologists, but they’re kind of having to learn on the fly like I was. A good part of what you guys do is just educating them about what technology can do and how it could benefit.

Ryan:  Oh yeah. Education is education and awareness are. We have an excellent marketing team. They are really good at telling that story. I think part of it is also just getting in front of the shops. These are incredibly busy people who are running, in many cases a very busy business, a lot of logistics to handle and they just aren’t necessarily aware or again, they don’t want to take that time just to sit down for 30 minutes and say, okay, what’s really going on here? And we do have an excellent support team as well who first place customers, they can reach out to them and kind of walk them through things, say, hey, we sent you this. We’re able to look at that kind of like a monthly call just to make sure that everything is running smoothly and that if they have any questions or like, Hey, did you see this new thing that we’ve built? Here’s how you use it. I don’t want to call it handholding because I think it’s important. I just you know, you and I, we have we’re incredibly busy with what we do. And if someone came to us and said, hey, here’s this new thing, you know, it usually takes several times for that to sink in or resonate with. We firmly believe it is a better way to run the business. And so we are willing to take that time to help these shops in any way we can.

James: Now where do you think loyalty programs fit into today’s kind of omnichannel environment where people can order over the phone or in person. Online loyalty programs are a big part of the restaurant business.

Ryan: They really are. I mean, it’s one of the most you can go back decades and you find, I’m sure, remnants of star carts somewhere. I don’t know, probably an archeologist that would find that. But really this idea of customers being the lifeblood of your company, of your business, and you wanting to treat them right and make them feel like a regular or reward them for being loyal to you. Is that just dates back to the very beginnings, maybe the modern beginnings of the modern era with omnichannel? It is interesting because the stamp cards are physical. You walk in this story, you buy a slice, let’s say, and you get a stamp. And that’s kind of how loyalty programs have always run with the advent of digital orders and being able to process phone orders in a digital manner. There is an incredible opportunity that we’re working on right now to bring all of this together. Right. And so a shop can have a holistic view of customer A, B or C and where they order, how frequently the order and where they order from so that they can provide them. The things that we’re talking about, a great experience, make them feel like a regular, be able to reward them or incentivize them to come back as well. And I think you will see more and more loyalty programs within these platforms, such as Slice and others, will play a more prominent role in the sense that it’s a way of unifying all of the data and at the end of the day, helping shops take care of their customers, which is what they care about the most.

James: Yeah, you definitely see that a lot where, you know, it used to be like a company was just online ordering or just loyalty. And then it seems like over the last M, especially the pandemic, a lot of you know, places like yourself in. Others are really trying to be more of a all the way through the process, from loyalty to online ordering to back a house and offer that full stack rather than just individual components.

Ryan: Yeah, I think you nailed it like that is there are some really good loyalty programs that, in my opinion, were just a few years too early. And because they didn’t have that full stack, they weren’t able to connect or close the loop, let’s say. So you can get people at a certain point to find out. You can’t bring them back to the top and run all the way down. That’s kind of where they were lacking. And now companies are coming forward today who can do the full stack? That’s where you get the real value from. And I think if you look at kind of where this whole omnichannel world is heading in the future, if the underlying assumption is that the lifeblood of the shops are their customers, that’s what they care about the most. That’s what keeps the business running, is people coming in and buying the things that they make. And if there’s a genuine desire from customers to have a better, more seamless omnichannel experience, then I think shops will tap over time because, you know, you see this constantly, not just in the restaurant industry, but with a lot of small businesses. They want to please and meet the customers where they are, and so they’ll do all these things to get toward that. And so if customers start to set the expectation of like, I want to have my order history stored such that I can just reorder in a very simple and easy way, or I want to have some sort of loyalty program where I can be rewarded, or I want this shop to know my preferences and allergies. All of that can be done. And the more and more that consumers or customers of the stores require that or expect that, I think more and more shops will will want to provide that over time.

James: I think a lot I mean, a lot of people these days are used to Amazon or Starbucks. They’re very sophisticated programs. Right. They’re expecting that from at all levels of, you know, even three to small business where they want to be able to go into the store, they want to be able to order online and have the same experience, right?

Ryan: Yeah, I would even go as far as to say in the future, a lot of customers would want to have that, even if they’re walking into a store for the first time. So imagine a world in which you can walk into a pizzeria for the very first time and they can treat you like a regular right off the bat. You know, it’s really great to see you. I it seems like you’re not really a fan of X, Y and Z ingredient. Like, you know, we’re taking care of you. Is there anything else I can get for you today? That might be a bit futuristic, but I think with unified data and unified platforms, I think we can get to that in the future, which would be, in my opinion, really great for customers and for the shops.

James: Now we’re like, if you’re an operator and know that technology is important and you need to do more, what recommendations or kind of where would you guide owners today on how to to begin to think about implementing technology into their operation.

Ryan: Yeah, I would first step back, you know, maybe using the same framework that will come back to that, which is how am I currently connecting with my customers and do I know of a better way or it seems like there’s a better way I could do this, right? So then start doing some research and figuring out like, how are others doing that with split platforms or companies are out there that could help you to do that and kind of going through the list. So looking at, you know, also, how do I manage my orders? You know, a lot of these restaurant owners have friends in the business. I think it will be lucky to or fortunate enough to tap into that network. And I bet a lot of really great shop owners through other shops and even though they’re competitors in some sense they’re in the same city, there really is some camaraderie there. And so you can ask, you can say, hey, what are you doing? But I think if you just went to a friend or even the Internet and said, Hey, what could I be doing with tech? You’re just going to get a bunch of either blank stares or kind of general advice. But if you take the time to step through and break your business into the component parts of the customers, the orders, the running of the business and the panel, and went line by line and said, Am I doing this? Well, if not, how do I get better? And I think kind of being your own consultant and stepping back and saying what’s working, what’s not is a great way to start. And then you can reach out to two companies or friends and then they can kind of help you in a more tailored or specific way.

James: I think the technology, it all just comes back to people, right? I mean, it just you got to think about the people first, not about the technology and what problems you’re trying to solve.

Ryan: Exactly. And the key is the problem that you are solving is so that you can make a better experience for the people that care about your shop and patronize it and come in every day or every week. Those are the people that you want to help.

James: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you enjoyed the conversation. I thought it was some very insightful points that you made.

Ryan: Great. I love the conversation and thank you very much for having me.