podcastsmall business war stories

Home Slice Pizza: How to Build a Brand in Austin, Texas | Nano Whitman

How To Build a Brand

A recognizable brand is one of the most valuable assets a business can have. 

Brands with a die-hard following are the envy of every other business out there. These evangelical fans tell everyone they know about the business and share their love online.  

They become that brand’s ambassadors and free marketing engine.

But how can you build a brand like this?

Find out how Austin, Texas’s Home Slice Pizza did just this with no paid advertising!

This and more in the first episode of Small Business War Stories. 

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Nano Whitman from Home Slice Pizza is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Home Slice is an icon here in the community. A lot of people when they talk about going to Home Slice, it’s almost a religion. We want to talk about brand building and how you guys have gone about getting such a great following.

Maybe if you could introduce yourself for just a minute and tell me like how you got here, how you first got to Home Slice?

Nano Whitman: All right, so, I moved to Austin in 2004, and every day I would ride my bike past this store front that had nothing going on down a street that was starting to grow called South Congress, which is now the center of what Austin has come to stand for.

And I saw a sign go up in the window that said, “Home Slice, hi” and I said, “That’s going to be pizza. I love pizza.” I worked in pizza in Boston, and I applied as soon as there was a number on the window and I started as a bartender manager, we had 35 employees. I was the first employee, we now have 140 employees and my title is director of operations and I just became a part owner.

What is something most people don’t know about the pizza business?

Nano Whitman: Pizza is all about consistency. Making one pizza really well, that’s a skill it’s a … not anyone can do it, but a lot of people can make one excellent pizza. What I found incredibly challenging about the pizza business is being consistent, making a thousand perfect pizzas made. We make between 4,000 and 6,000 pizzas a week.

We care about every single pizza, we want every single guest experience to be perfect, and making 6,000 of something perfectly, you can’t do it yourself. So it’s all about getting a lot of other people on board with what your goal is.

Do you have any funny customer stories?

Nano Whitman: Funniest customer story, you know, when I think about our customers, the people that stand out to me are the ones who have gotten attached to Home Slice as a part of their life. We have this annual event, the Carnival of Pizza. The people who win the “hands on an eggplant sub” competition get a year of free pizza which is, you put your hand on a sub and the last one to take his or her hand off the sub wins free pizza for a year.

Those have been my favorite customers over the years. They get, first of all, they’re crazy and they stand there for up to 70 hours with their hands on a sub They get bathroom breaks every ten hours, it’s crazy. They have to stand, no sleeping.

So, one guy won four years in a row and he started a blog where he would bring somebody out for pizza and then the next week, that person would invite somebody and then the next week, that person would invite somebody. So he had dinner with perfect strangers that had been invited by his previous guest for a year. He kept a blog and it was the “year of pizza.” It was fantastic.

Can you tell us more about the Carnival of Pizza?

Nano Whitman: The Carnival of Pizza has been running for eleven years and is a celebration of all things pizza. We bring pizzerias in Texas together to compete dough tossing competitions, there’s an eating competition, there’s the hands on eggplant sub competition, kids games. It’s a community event. It’s always a fundraiser for benefit organization, we’ve raised over $100,000 over the last five years for a local non-profit that we care about.

Pizza is this really special thing because it’s a shared food, it’s a multi-generational food, and pizza just brings people together. So we do this event to celebrate pizza, it’s sort of based on Coney Island and the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and Manhattan.

We hand paint all the signs. It feels like a very homegrown Austin thing, keep it weird. And it takes a lot of effort.

When you contrast earlier Carnivals of Pizza to today’s, what have you learned?

Nano Whitman: In the beginning we would have one person own the event and try to muscle the event through by him or herself. Over the years, we’ve all learned our piece and now it just comes together so much more organically because we trust each other as a team.

Tell me more about your brand and how you’ve built this cult-like following. You have 15,000 Twitter followers, 25,000 Facebook likes, and 5,000 Instagram followers. A lot of people love engaging with your social media. Has that been accidental and organic or has that been something that you guys have put a lot of thought into? How has that worked out?

Nano Whitman: So, Home Slice really lucked out because we got the best location at the exact right moment in Austin you could imagine, right as social media became something that people cared about. 2005 is when we opened and for a long time, we gave absolutely no importance to social media. Eventually, we hired a guy internally who handled all of our Tweets and Facebook posts, but it wasn’t really a highly … he was great at it, but it wasn’t that organized and we didn’t have a real direction. Only in the last six months have we hired a PR company to handle it and I feel that they’ve taken it to the next level and are really targeting our networking with other people and liking tastemakers and trying to cross-pollinate with other people. 

We are trying to be really consistent, coherent brand to the photos and our style. To be really successful, the owner has to invests in it and care about it, because they are the only one who really understands the brand.

Tell me more about how you look at Home Slice’s brand

Nano Whitman: It is very difficult to teach somebody a brand.  I think social media is one of those things where you really want to control the aesthetic and the vibe and it’s very hard to put your finger on what that is.

We want them to think of us as an institution. Most people moved to Austin in the last five years so they think it’s been here forever. We want people to think that it’s always been here and that it will always be here. Lombardi’s in Little Italy is 106 years old, something like that, or 111 years old.

We want to be here in 100 years and we want people to think of us that way. We want people to think that they belong to our family so we want them to think of family. We want them to think that we are a company with a conscience. We do not want them to think about how much money we make, we want them to think about how much happiness we create. And I also get a very strong nostalgia as part of our brand. This is about the inner child and about it feeling like a family … like a really welcoming place.

How do you guys deal with Yelp? You have great Yelp reviews, but has there been an occasion in the past when things maybe didn’t go as well there and how did you guys handle it?

Nano Whitman: We deal with it every day. I think that if you think you’re going to control your Yelp in a reactive way or your reviews in a reactive way, you’re going to fail. Of course, being 100% consistent when you’re making 6,000 pizzas a week and taking care of thousands of people is next to impossible, so, there will be negative Yelp reviews.

One thing is, we truly, truly are grateful when somebody leaves a negative review. We see that, 99 times out of 100, we see that as an opportunity to improve and to train our staff and ourselves about something we may not have even known about or that is a blind spot, right? So, that is an honest response.

I think that people are much more prone to talk about their negative experiences at a business than they are their positive ones. So for every hour that you wait to respond, there’s a chance that they’re out there spreading a negative message about who you are.

I think we have many loyal customers who initially had a negative experience and let us know, we took care of it, and now they are our biggest fans.

Nano Whitman: We do no paid advertising. We feel very fortunate. We do a lot of donations, somewhere in the realm of $12,000 in pizzas a year. We try to stay relevant in the community our community by sponsoring events.

You have been a very successful musician here in Austin. I know that Home Slice has a lot of investment in the music community and you support a lot of folks here in town. How do you do that?

Nano Whitman: I would say this, number one, every … probably 60% of the people that work in our front of house are in bands. They’re our artists. Austin is teeming with musicians, and they need jobs that aren’t music because music doesn’t pay for things, generally speaking, so they sell pizza.

We have a commitment to our employees, maintaining the ability for them to have flexible schedules. It allows people who are good workers to go on tour and come back and have a job.

They have to be committed to what we are doing as well, they can’t just view this as their bogus job. But I find that people, in general, that we want to spend time with are people who work their hardest no matter what they’re doing so they’re working hard on their music and they’re working hard at Home Slice too.

We also … we sponsor events, album releases, parties, we make sure our … we want to see our pizza at those places for them to love us, for the artists to love us and so that we can show our love for the artist.

Are there any lessons you learned in music that helped you with the business here at Home Slice?

Nano Whitman: Gosh, it’s so the other way around. Home Slice helped my music more than music helped Home Slice I think.

There are a bunch of things, but most importantly, if you’re running your own band, you’re actually a manger. So I learned how to manage people and create expectations and learned how to follow through and create actionable lists.

These days in the music industry, you need to be everything. Right? You can’t just hole yourself up and write a perfect song and somebody’s going to find you and make all your albums and make it all work for you. I mean, maybe there are those lucky few. But for the most part, you need to be your marketing, you need to be your production you need to be your accountant, you need to be the manager of everybody who works on your music and you need to have a clear idea of what your brand is.

So I learned so much more about music and how to do that from Home Slice and not to mention the fact that it turns out that people really like pizza and they were very open to helping me out in my music because they knew I was associated with Home Slice.

Where do you see Austin going in the next five, ten years?

Nano Whitman: Well, that’s the big … half a billion dollar question for the city, right? Lots of  high rises are going up and there is extreme growth. This competes with the music venues and the rents. There is also parking and sound ordinances and the cost of living for artists, it’s so much more expensive to live in Austin now than it was ten years ago. All of our employees are having to move further and further away and that’s a real problem.

What’s your favorite spot in Austin? Where do you love to go?

Nano Whitman: Immediately what comes to mind is this bar called Stay Gold which is great jazz or soul. It feels like a dive, but it feels like … but there’s leather. And I just I just love how kind people in Austin are. I feel welcome everywhere I go and I try really hard to be welcoming. There’s so many people that have moved to Austin, there’s so much new stuff happening it would be really easy to get jaded and feel like the old Austin is dying.

But then a new place like Stay Gold opens that uses the furniture from an old Austin place. The guys who own it have been it in Austin forever and used to run Hole in the Wall which is this iconic music venue. They are keeping the not pretentious, but really cool and welcoming vibe.

They also have great music. You can walk into Stay Gold any night and you’re going to be impressed and enjoy whatever is being played, at least I am.

Anything else you want our listeners to know about Home Slice Pizza?

Nano Whitman: We’re known for our pizza, but our sandwiches are great. Our meatball sub, the Italian I’m from Philly, the Italian hoagie, we call it a sub here. So good. We make the bread here every day, don’t miss the subs.

Nano, you’re a rock star in every sense of the word, cheers, and thank you so much for being our first guest at Small Business War Stories.

Final Thoughts

Building a great brand is about consistency and crafting your own unique style. To be really successful, it is something you need to invest in and care about.

Only the owner of the business can really understand their brand and they need to set the standard.  

If you have any question or comments about brand or about this episode of Small Business War Stories, please leave a comment below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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