Round Table Pizza

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Round Table Pizza

1320 Willow Pass Rd., Ste. 600
Concord, California 94520
Telephone: (925) 969-3900
Fax: (925) 969-3978
Web site:



By 1998 Round Table, an employee-owned chain based in Walnut Creek, California, that offered an upscale line of gourmet pizzas, had used the same advertising tag line, "The last honest pizza," for 15 years. The campaign continued throughout much of the year, enhanced by television commercials such as a series called "The Adventures of Gary Garlic," created by Butler, Shines & Stern of Sausalito, California. But by the fall of 1998 Round Table Pizza, with an advertising budget estimated between $8 and $10 million annually, had canceled the campaign, which also included radio and magazine advertising, the latter handled by Tom Geary & Associates. It also ended its two-year relationship with its advertising agency and signed with Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. By the spring of 1999 a new campaign was under way.

Round Table Pizza had already changed advertising agencies twice in eight years before abandoning Butler for Wieden late in 1998. Throughout that time, however, and for many years preceding, the chain had maintained its tongue-in-cheek "Last Honest Pizza" campaign. The advertising featured an intrepid character named Bill, who challenged fate in a variety of ways, and later spots included a sidekick called Gary Garlic, created by Butler. But as Jeff Manning and Cesar Diaz reported in the Portland Oregonian in September 1998, "After two years of sales as flat as a cheese pizza," the company was ready to consider a new strategy.

The change in advertising agencies and campaigns mirrored larger strategic changes in the chain, which in 1998 had some 530 franchised operating units and $365 million in sales. Although the company intended to stick with—and indeed enhance—its gourmet-style menu, it had begun to look at new ways of serving customers, in part through "delco" (delivery and carry-out only) establishments. Furthermore, with facilities in eight western states, Round Table had begun to look eastward, toward a much larger share of the more than $22 billion U.S. pizza industry.


In 1959 businessman William Larson borrowed $2,500 to establish the first Round Table Pizza restaurant in his hometown of Menlo Park, California. At that time pizza, which had first gained popularity in the United States after World War II, was starting to take hold among the U.S. population, and by 1962 Larson was in a position to begin selling franchises.

Despite the fact that gourmet-style pizza would not really come into vogue until the late 1980s and thereafter, from that early stage Larson had determined to build a better pizza, and he developed strict standards for franchisees to follow. Among the facets that made Round Table unique was the fact that all of its ingredients were fresh, including dough made daily from scratch, freshly grated cheeses, and fresh sauces.

The chain grew rapidly on the West Coast, an area where consumers were inclined to look for and accept extraordinary culinary ideas. In 1979, 17 years after Larson began franchising, Round Table had expanded to include more than 150 units. It was in 1979 that an investment group purchased Larson's company, and four years later the new owners launched "The Last Honest Pizza" campaign, which focused on the quality ingredients and pizza-making methods used at Round Table.

The first of several advertising agencies hired by Round Table Pizza in the 1990s was San Francisco-based Goldberg Moser O'Neill. This relationship lasted from 1990 until late 1993, when the firm was replaced by California ad agency Bertram Wooster. By February 1996, Round Table was ready for another change, at which point it took on Butler, Shines & Stern. At that point its advertising budget was valued at $7 to $8 million, with 50 percent dedicated to television and the remainder to a mix of radio, magazines, and other formats. The changes in agencies primarily affected electronic media, as Round Table had continued throughout much of this time with the firm of Tom Geary & Associates for its print advertising, while EH&Y Media Services of Santa Barbara took care of media buying.

As of mid-1992, Round Table ownership passed to its employees, who on June 1 of that year purchased the company. In later years there would be disputes over advertising between the Round Table Owners Association and franchisees who refused to contribute to its cooperative advertising fund. An agreement between the Owners Association and some 120 renegade franchisees in February 1998, in fact, helped open the way for the chain's planned expansion into the eastern United States and a variety of marketing venues.


By the late 1990s Round Table had franchise locations in seven western states besides its home base of California: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii. It also had facilities in six nations in the Middle East and in East Asia. With well over 500 locations and more than $300 million in annual sales, the company prepared for a massive expansion intended to carry it into new geographical areas and new operating venues, where it would serve new products to a widening range of buyers.

Joan Voight of Adweek noted in April 1996 that the company was "looking to zero in on the health-conscious [baby] boomer market by 'making our product line more upscale,'" the latter according to vice president of marketing Diane Waitkus. This would, in Voight's words, "give the restaurant a more contemporary feel and set it apart from its rivals peddling inexpensive, high-fat products." Yet like some of those more down-to-earth competitors, Round Table had begun by mid-1998 to move increasingly toward delivery and carryout facilities, in addition to its sit-down units.


In June 1999, Round Table Pizza honored 11 franchisees who had provided outstanding service to their communities. Among those cited for their record of community service was a franchisee that organized local resources to raise $20,000 for a woman and her children after the husband and father had been killed in an automobile accident. Another Round Table operator was recognized for assisting special-needs students with vocational training, and promotion of community service on a website earned kudos for yet another franchisee.

According to company president Jim Fletcher, in 1998 Round Table franchisees supported some 1,000 youth sports teams, either by purchasing uniforms, assisting in fund-raising, or helping in some other way. Estimated giving to community needs by Round Table restaurant owners reached $2 million in 1998, with efforts including companywide sponsorship of a summer reading program that involved some 100,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Our operators look for the best ways to make a difference in their communities," Fletcher told Nation's Restaurant News. "In emergencies and on a daily basis, Round Table franchisees are there, lending a hand."

Hand in hand with the growth of these delco units—and with a broader-based strategy of expanding into unusual venues—was a move in the direction of eastward growth. John Klacking, one of Round Table's leading franchisees, told Amy Zuber of Nation's Restaurant News in June 1998 that the company's new corporate team "has more of a mind to expand eastward and be more aggressive." Nonetheless, the company had a long-standing regional identity. "If you grew up on the West Coast, you ate Round Table Pizza," Klacking said. "It is a tradition." Because of his own western background, Klacking suggested, "I didn't have an interest in opening a Pizza Hut or a Domino's."

The eastward expansion was still in its opening stages in 1998, but much further along was a move to place Round Table franchises in unusual locations, at least one of which would aid the geographical expansion in an innovative way. Ontario International Airport in California might not be the first place one would think of for pizza, but for hungry travelers the airport Round Table was a welcome addition. "One of the terminals where we are located," Round Table chief financial officer Rob McCourt told Zuber in November 1998, "has flights coming in and out from all over the country. That gives us a unique opportunity for national exposure, and it will help us support our expansion."


By 1998 the U.S. pizza industry accounted for $22 billion in sales, meaning that Americans spent more on pizza than the entire gross domestic product for the nation of Bolivia during that same year. It was an impressive figure, and Round Table began to aggressively go after a larger portion of this growing industry.

At the top in terms of sales was Pizza Hut, a Dallas-based chain owned by the gigantic foods conglomerate PepsiCo. Second in total sales, and first in delivery sales, was Domino's, a chain whose facilities were entirely delco units. Next was Little Caesars, followed by Papa John's, based in Louisville. Round Table stood just outside the big four of the industry, above other chains such as the upscale California Pizza Kitchen and the much more utilitarian Pizza Inn.

Many of the larger pizza lines had begun to take an interest in gourmet-style pizzas at least as early as the mid-1990s. Thus Pizza Hut, which in 1995 had sales of $7.9 billion, in 1996 introduced a number of specialty items such as Italian Chicken pizza, which included a garlic-flavored white sauce rather than the traditional tomato-based sauce. Papa John's, which advertised with the tag line "Better ingredients, better pizza," created by the Richards Group of Dallas, had begun to emphasize thin-crust pizzas. Even Pizza Inn, a chain that had begun expanding through express stores in gas stations, began offering a flavored crust in the mid-1990s.


When Round Table hired Butler, Shines & Stern in February 1996, Voight suggested in Adweek that, although "Butler is expected to put its own imprint" on Round Table advertising and its character of Bill, advertising would nonetheless "focus on the chain's gourmet pizza selections and a fresh line of healthful menu offerings." This was in line with established strategy, since "Round Table has maintained its position … over the years by concentrating on the quality of its food and sticking to a steady diet of attitude and humor in advertising."

The first series of Butler ads, which appeared in the late spring of 1996, consisted of about a dozen TV spots built around the tag line "Round Table. The last honest pizza." One ad, for instance, promoted specialty pizzas with unusual ingredients such as Chinese chili sauce or cashews and showed the pudgy pizza guy Bill taunting a biker at a stoplight. The intimidating biker reacted not by throttling Bill but simply by shaking his head in consternation. "Some days you just feel more adventurous," the voice-over suggested. According to Round Table's Waitkus, "We decided to show Bill in familiar, humorous, very '90s situations. By portraying the frailties of Everyman, Bill can defend the brand in a fun way."

In March 1998, Butler unveiled a 30-second TV spot featuring Bill along with the time-honored tag line and a new sidekick, Gary Garlic. The latter was the creation of M-5 Industries in San Francisco, the firm also responsible for the Penny Hardaway puppet used in Nike commercials. In "The Adventures of Gary Garlic," one of more than a half-dozen Round Table commercials undertaken by Butler over the course of the year, Gary Garlic and Bill—a.k.a. Bill Bonham—promoted Round Table's new Roastin' Toastin' Garlic Pizza.

Jane Irene Kelly in Adweek compared Gary Garlic to Mr. Bill, the hapless claymation character featured on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Naive, but dedicated to his dream," wrote Kelly, "Gary is roasted with a blowtorch, thrown in a food chopper, crushed by a falling artichoke and cleaved in half—all at the hands of [Bill] Bonham." Butler, Shines & Stern principal and creative director John Butler told Kelly that Bill was glad to have a cohort, since for many years he had been the one "endur[ing] all the stunts. This time it's Gary … but he always bounces back."

"In typical cartoon fashion," Kelly observed, "Gary's deadly encounters leave him undaunted. Each spot ends with him flying away on an angel's wings, cheerfully calling, 'Bye, everybody!'" Then, of course, there was the tag line "The last honest pizza," intended to signify the quality of Round Table's product. Although Gary was a new addition, the high-spirited style of the ads featuring him was not significantly different from that of the "Some Days You Just Feel More Adventurous" spot two years earlier.


After 15 years of "The Last Honest Pizza," Manning and Diaz reported in the Portland Oregonian in late September 1998, "Neither the company nor the ad campaign had much of a hold on the public imagination." Their observation was the result of research conducted by Wieden & Kennedy, the company's new advertising agency. Round Table had recently dismissed Butler, Shines & Stern in favor of the Oregon agency, best known for its Nike "Just Do It" ads.

Manning and Diaz indicated that the first new Round Table ads would appear in March or April, and on March 8, 1999, the company issued a press release in which it proclaimed the "Round Table Pizza Bill of Rights." The latter, the press released noted, "is the foundation for the campaign developed by Wieden & Kennedy." Five new television spots, along with radio ads, would "feature various animated characters [designed by underground cartoonist Peter Bagge] celebrating the Bill of Rights." One of these was "Steam Dance," a 15-second spot illustrating Article 7 of the 33 articles in the Bill of Rights: "The right to size up your fourth slice while you're still working on your third."

Another spot featured a sleepy rooster trying to wake up in the morning. A cold slice of Round Table pizza brought him to life, thus giving a visual image to Article 16: "The right to eat pizza for breakfast." In addition to the "Bill of Rights" campaign, which featured the tag line "If you love pizza, we love you," Round Table in mid-1999 ran a promotion in which it offered to host block parties—including 15 large pizzas, a large salad, and soft drinks for 50 people—for 33 winners of a random drawing. The promotion and the new ad campaign made note of Round Table's 40th anniversary, which the company celebrated throughout 1999.


Bertagnoli, Lisa. "Just Dough It: Flavored Crusts Top Pizza Chains' Menu Rollouts in Last Six Months." Restaurants & Institutions, July 15, 1996, pp. 34-36.

Dawson, Angela. "We the Pizza People." Adweek (Western Edition), March 15, 1999, p. 4.

Kelly, Jane Irene. "Butler, Shines & Stern Introduces Round Table's 'Gary Garlic' Puppet." Adweek (Western Edition), March 16, 1998, p. 4.

Manning, Jeff, and Cesar Diaz. "Round Table Signs with Wieden." Portland Oregonian, September 30, 1998, p. C3.

"'Pizza Eaters Have Their Rights!' Proclaim Round Table Revelers." Business Wire, March 8, 1999.

"Round Table Pizza Awards Franchisees for Community Outreach Programs." Nation's Restaurant News, June 21, 1999, p. 22.

"Round Table Pizza Proclaims 'Rights' for Pizza Lovers." Nation's Restaurant News, March 22, 1999, p. 14.

"This Summer's Going to Be a Pizzapalooza! How about a Block Party for 50—Free from Round Table?" Business Wire, June 2, 1999.

Voight, Joan. "Butler Swipes Round Table's Pizza Business." Adweek (Western Edition), February 5, 1996, p. 4.

―――――――. "Round Table's Slice of Life." Adweek (Western Edition), April 1, 1996, p. 6.

Zuber, Amy. "Round Table Pizza Looks to Nontraditional Venues for Expansion." Nation's Restaurant News, November 30, 1998, p. 3.

―――――――. "Round Table Plans Aggressive Expansion Eastward." Nation's Restaurant News, June 15, 1998, p. 6.

                                            Judson Knight