Mark Russell: Translating Training to Guest Experience

by Kristian Seemeyer

Mark-Russell“Training. It’s all about training.” So says Mark Russell, CEO and founder of Oregano’s Pizza Bistro, when asked about how he stays ahead of the pack. His office is a wonderland of street signs, old marketing signs and wooden barrels, and he’s got a pinball machine behind his desk. It’s a décor not unlike that of his restaurants — hardly surprising, as he actually decorates them with items from his collection. As for business challenges, he sees one of his greatest challenges right in front of him: the influx of new restaurants opening as the economy grows.

Russell was motivated to open Oregano’s to memorialize his parents. He lost both of them within two years to cancer. “It was a really difficult time and I really didn’t know what to do,” he says. “These restaurants are a tribute to them. We play my dad’s favorite music in all the restaurants; all the memorabilia you see reminds me of my childhood. And you’ll find a photograph of my parents in each Oregano’s.”

The first Oregano’s Pizza Bistro opened in 1993 in a building that was a converted adobe farmhouse in Scottsdale. The goal was to serve authentic Italian comfort food in a casual bistro setting with reasonable prices. The goal was met and, 20 years and 12 locations later, Russell is still working hard to preserve his original standards. He has a mantra with regard to expansion: “We won’t grow unless we can take care of the guest.” He means from top to bottom: service, prices, quality of ingredients, tasty dishes.

“We did great during the recession,” says Russell. “I think people were not so much eating out at their steakhouses and their fine-dining establishments, but they still wanted to get out and have that great service and that experience of dining out. We provided that.”

But now, says Russell, an improvement in the economy means more restaurants are opening and that means more competition for hungry diners. “We’re seeing more restaurants pop up in the new economy.”

So while Oregano’s had fairly smooth sailing during the recession, now, with so many competitors for the dining dollar, Russell sees the present as the time to hunker down and focus. And he’s placing his focus on training. “We’ve always had great guest services, but now is the time to shore up and polish. We’ll put more of a dollar into training. And it’s kind of our way. We don’t call it the restaurant business here; we call it the Oregano’s business. But it’s our way of finding efficiencies for the quests, to improve their experience without raising prices. And one way to do that is through training.”

The training will take place across the restaurant, from kitchen staff to front-of-house staff. Another benefit of extensive training? Less turnover in an industry famous for high staff turnover. “I just love when I see a server at a table and he can rattle of the ingredients of all the pizzas and he knows with confidence what’s in each dish. That is going to bring great value to the diner’s experience,” says Russell. “And those are the servers who, across the board, are going to bring home better tips. So they’re going to stay with us.”

Every part of the training will translate into an improved experience for the guest, says Russell. From the moment they walk in the door, to their first drink, their entrée and dessert, training affects their entire stay at Oregano’s. And that’s the payoff Russell hopes will keep Oregano’s ahead of the pack as new restaurants seem to be popping up in vacant spaces everywhere.

When it comes to hiring the right employees, Russell looks for two things: friendliness and that certain spark. “If they don’t have that genuine friendly disposition and that spark, those are things we can’t teach, we can’t train. So that has to be there.”

Another tweak diners will see to keep up with current health trends will be reflected on the menu. “We’ve always had vegetarian fare,” says Russell, “but now we’re adding gluten-free items and whole grain crusts. And it’s not easy. You can’t just throw those things out there and say, ‘Here they are!’ They have to taste great. So there is a lot that goes into putting new items on the menu.”

Russell says he’s learned a lot working for US Airways in the guest services department and in restaurants over the years where he sharpened his cooking skills. But it’s his attitude that carried him. “I developed an ‘I will not fail’ attitude. And I was relentless in the pursuit of guest satisfaction.”


Side Dish

  • Oregano’s celebrated its 20 Year Anniversary on November 18, 2013. On opening day, the restaurant earned $777.
  • As a locally owned and operated “neighborhood pizza joint,” Oregano’s strives to use as many Arizona ingredients as possible. “We’re just a local chain,” says Russell, “and we want to stay as close as possible.”
  • Oregano’s food has won multiple awards, including ABC15 The A-List for Best Desserts in Phoenix.
  • Oregano’s supports a variety of local causes, including American Cancer Society, The V Foundation for Cancer Research, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Childhelp, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, and Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson.

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