In a world populated by 7 billion people, made up of countless different cultures and ethnic groups, all with their own unique culinary heritage, eating habits and food preferences are as diverse and varied as we are. However, make no mistake about it – if ever the world had a number one favourite national dish, it would be pizza.
If you, like many, many others, approach food with a live attitude as opposed to an eat than eat to live one, there is a strong chance that you not only eat pizza but love pizza. Doubly so if you live in the US – the modern-day spiritual home of this cheese and passata-based treat, where it is estimated a whopping 350 slices are eaten each second.
The US has long been a country which is packed with pizzerias by their thousands, but just across the seas in the Caribbean, countries like Trinidad & Tobago have only caught the pizza-eating bug within recent decades. And it is no coincidence that the country’s love affair with the world’s best-loved food began when Richard ‘Slice’ Harford first opened the doors of Mario’s Pizzeria for business.
The Mario’s story began in the early 1970’s when upon his return to Trinidad after working in Canada, Richard Harford made the decision to realise his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. At this time, Trinidad & Tobago was on the up, and opportunity was everywhere. Eventually, Richard and a small group of his closest friends came up with the idea to open a restaurant at the Valpark Shopping Plaza, where a small shop unit had come available. Initially, Harford’s restaurant was a deli-style restaurant and sandwich bar which, thanks to the great food and friendly service, fast became a hit.
However, it was only a few months later when three of Harford’s friends, who returned from Canada after attending college there with a pizza oven to hand, succeeded in persuading him that true entrepreneurial a pizza parlour, not a deli was the key to achieving great things. The rest as they say is history – the five friends banded together to create Mario’s Pizzeria soon afterwards, and sowed the seeds for the success that followed after with the opening of their first pizzeria in 1972.
Over the course of the 45 years since, Mario’s Pizzeria has gone from being a single restaurant business out of Valpark Shopping Plaza to a 21-restaurant retail chain with operations across the length and breadth of Trinidad and Guyana. Even in a marketplace that hosts some of the biggest names in the business, including Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Papa John’s, it is telling that Mario’s Pizzeria is the runaway market leader. This is for good reason – Mario’s is a Trinidadian company through-and-through, which offers the quality of any of the big American international pizza brands with a dash of Caribbean flair that caters to the tastes of the local tongue.
“To stay ahead of the foreign competition, we’ve had to deliver to customers the pizzas that meet their satisfaction, and continually upgrade our facilities to ensure that we keep offering a quality product, cost-effectively,” said Roger Harford, the CEO of Mario’s Pizzeria.
In the eyes of Trinidadians, Mario’s is a brand which shares their culture and heritage, and understands what it takes to make truly great pizza that is unique to the islands. As an example of this, Richard Harford understood from the beginning that Trinidadians have a weak spot for bold, hot flavours, and as a result Mario’s continues to use different ingredients in its pizzas to what visitors might expect to find in other countries. As an example of this, Mario’s pizzas don’t use mozzarella but mature cheddar cheeses instead as the main topping, while the passata sauce is made using a number of locally sourced herbs and spices, rather than traditional Italian seasonings. Unlike foreign competitors, who use a uniform recipe for their global customer base, Mario’s Pizzeria are lovingly crafted with their domestic audience in mind. The future for the business looks bright, however this isn’t to say the company hasn’t faced its fair share of adversity. After an initial few years of rip-roaring success, the country’s national economy collapsed and sent the restaurant into a tailspin. It was during this time that Richard took the incredibly bold decision to buy-out his childhood friends and go it alone. The two to three-year period that followed proved to be difficult for him, and it took all of Richard’s hard work and perseverance for which he is famed to ride out the economic storm. But as trying as this time was, Mario’s Pizzeria survived, and it was after this time that the business really took off and rose to the next level.
For all its success, Mario’s Pizza remains a family-owned business even to this day, and the company is run with one simple aim in mind – to keep Mario’s ahead of the chasing through the provision of the best pizza to be found on Trinidad, and a superior level of customer service, which is hard to find in Trinidad & Tobago, and through engaging and building relationships with customers via digital platforms.
Roger elaborated on this, stating: “Good customer service is something that can be hard to find on the islands, because we haven’t honed them by having a tourism industry here. Trinidad & Tobago became wealthy through its oil and gas and financial services, we didn’t need it. So what we’re trying to do is change this by training staff to offer a level of customer care that simply can’t be found anywhere else at the moment. We want smiley, happy staff, and we’re encouraging this through an initiative we’re running at the moment.
We’ve also honed our social media presence so that we can interact better with our customers, and find out more about their experience with us. We’re active on all popular social media networks, and all of our restaurants offer free WiFi to visitors.”
Looking ahead to what the future holds, there is much for the company to be optimistic about. Growing demand for the Mario’s brand, combined with its under-representation in Trinidad and absence in Tobago means that there is still huge scope for expansion – an opportunity which isn’t lost on Roger. And beyond its home islands, the world beckons. All things being well, Mario’s Pizza intends to spread its franchises across the length and breadth of the English-speaking Caribbean, and perhaps one day even South or even North America.
Through the quality of its sublime pizzas and unrivalled standard of service, Mario’s Pizzeria has not merely held its ground against the competition, which includes some of the biggest global brands in the business, but risen to the top of its field. The successful fusion of local character and identity with international standards can be a difficult thing to achieve, but as the Mario’s Pizzeria’s story shows, the result can be fantastic when you get the ingredients right.