Imagine a time before big box stores littered our landscape. Before the internet, before smart phones, before rockstar chef culture. Imagine a time when all food was local food. Not as a gimmick for the sake of building cred, mind you, but local because it was trucked in from surrounding farms in an era when refrigerated trucks were still an iffy proposition and our industrial food system was in its infancy. Imagine a time when, if you hustled hard enough, you could build an empire.
Piazza Produce was founded in 1970 by Pete and his father, Paul Piazza, with one truck, one route and one client, based out of the old Indianapolis Produce Terminal. Pete and Paul would wake up in the wee hours of the morning and head to the Terminal. From there, they’d load a pickup truck with freshly picked produce and deliver it to a few Burger Chef restaurants around Indianapolis. That relationship proved foundational; Piazza Produce has steadily grown into a Midwest powerhouse with hundreds of trucks on the road 24 hours a day, 363 days a year. They take Christmas and Thanksgiving off.
Through the 2000’s in particular, Piazza experienced aggressive growth. They’d recently merged with Indianapolis Fruit, essentially doubling their footprint—Indianapolis Fruit handles all retail accounts (grocery stores, gas stations, etc.) while Piazza focuses on wholesale foodservice accounts (independent & chain restaurants, schools, etc.). They also expanded their fleet and absorbed a small specialty foods company, allowing a sort of return to form: Catering to chefs with specific artisanal fare like spices, chocolates and a variety of ethnic cuisine, as well as focusing more and more on marketing local produce, including heirloom and seasonal varieties.
As can happen with rapid growth and acquisitions, Piazza’s messaging had become muddled. Every employee had different business cards and email signatures, internal sales documents didn’t match invoices which didn’t match signage which didn’t match their burgeoning biannual expo, and so on. To say it was a cluster would be putting it mildly. In early 2012, we began working with Piazza to tackle these issues.
Marcus Agresta, along with Michelle, Jenny, Alex, Shane, Nic, and OG Pete Piazza himself, are a great group to work with. They work hard, use the sort of salty language you’d find on the set of ‘Deadwood,’ and have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullshit. These traits have formed the foundation of one of our favorite client relationships.
Theirs is one of the most fascinating industries we’ve had a chance to research and explore. Produce distribution quite literally keeps our country running. Food is grown (or raised), ends up at a processing plant, and is then shipped out to grocery stores, restaurants and large institutions (think hospitals or schools). Seeing this first hand, we’ve learned how important Piazza’s role is—there’s usually only a few days worth of food in restaurants or stores at any given time. They play a key role in an intricate food distribution system—keeping us stocked with the fresh food that we use to live.
The produce distribution industry is dominated by a few enormous corporations (colloquially referred to as ‘Broadliners’). These places supply lots of the stuff restaurants need to run (napkins, plates and other goods) at such a large scale that they can afford to offer produce almost as an afterthought. While they can offer cheap produce, their service is notoriously lacking. Imagine discovering the thirty pounds of heirloom tomatoes you ordered for your lunch special didn’t arrive—good luck getting a Broadliner to respond quickly enough to save your lunch rush. But with no minimum orders and a nimble delivery fleet, Piazza regularly makes that happen.
We took the Piazza team (comprised of sales, marketing, and senior leadership) through our Hands-on Branding process to better frame these ideas. This process included talking to different size accounts, salesmen, warehouse folks, delivery drivers, produce buyers & farmers from across the country. We went on delivery truck ride-alongs to see behind the scenes of this crucial aspect of their business. Insight from this process helped us frame Piazza’s Brand Essence and positioning. Three compelling ideas arose through the course of our research:
1. Piazza offers the freshest produce and specialty foods.
2. Piazza is a local, family-owned business.
3. Speed & Service is everything. (that restaurant needs lettuce, no matter what excuse you have)
Each of these potential ideas was presented as a mood board, allowing the Piazza team to prototype what their identity, website, and delivery trucks should look (and feel) like. With this final board built, we were outfitted with key ideas and visuals that position Piazza away from industry Broadliners. Now, we’re able to organize these ideas through design to reflect their story to potential and existing customers, as well as the larger midwest community.
At each turn of the process, we uncovered new ways to differentiate Piazza from the big-box “Broadliner” category. We designed a new logo system to reinforce the idea that Piazza is a family-owned company with local roots. Supporting this idea are various secondary brands, such as Piazza LOCAL, a product line offering the finest local agriculture and craft foods available. Or Piazza’s Finest, an in-house brand of high quality spice blends and bases. Of equal importance: a fresh redesign for the omnipresent “White With Red Letters” delivery trucks that you’re sure to spot while driving in central Indiana. Try to navigate a typical rush hour without seeing a dozen of those bad boys.
Through all of this effort, we’ve reinforced the idea that Piazza Produce offers a higher quality product than the broadliners, with a comprehensive level of customer service that the big guys can’t come close to matching.
Piazza’s extant website had not seen a significant update since 2007. We took stock of their marketing efforts to understand what their new online presence would need to accomplish. If we want to separate Piazza further from dreaded Broadliner competition, then what will they need their website to do? Ecommerce has changed a ton even in the last year… How can we make a site that’s easier for restaurant customers to use (and as a plus, what if it was actually pleasant to use)? This actually required us to tackle the integration of TWO sites—the first, a more information forward, Piazza-focused platform that houses content marketing efforts and specials; and a second, that would handle backend ordering, account management and inventory.
We worked with the staff of enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution Produce Pro to make sure that the Piazza website experience, from front end to back, was smooth, consistent and pleasant. We didn’t just design headers for these page, but actually got into the nuts and bolts of interface design, to make sure everything looks (and works) at a high level, at every step of the sales process. We bug tested, error reported, and shook the fences until we were sure that the Piazza website would be pleasant enough to match their consistently high-level, in-person customer service offering.
We outfitted Piazza with a custom Salesforce email marketing template and trained staff to use the new website—gone are the days of a hard-coded, inflexible marketing platform. Now Piazza can easily push local specialties, sales promotions, and perhaps best of all, get their stuff out there so restaurants can get excited about the delicious ingredients (and perhaps more importantly— the attentive service) Piazza can provide.
It’s a daunting task to encapsulate four decades of a family business within a website or a logo. Groups like Piazza Produce are proof that hard work and a no-nonsense attitude are great places to start. Speaking selfishly, it was a treat to work with a company that has rich ties to our city’s history, yet manages to be a relevant and positive force in local food even today. The next time you strap in to devour a caesar salad, take a moment to consider where it came from, and maybe pour a tiny squirt of dressing out on the curb for all the people who worked so very hard to get it to you.