The Genius of Artichoke Pizza

A case study on how customer psychology influences decisions

Artichoke Basille’s Pizza is one of New York City’s most hyped pizza chains. Its expensive, greasy pizza earns it constant lines out the door and an intensely loyal following. How popular is Artichoke? Its East Village location is the 2nd most visited and 3rd most reviewed pizzeria in all of New York. If that’s not impressive enough, Artichoke’s combined Manhattan locations earn more reviews and check-ins than any other pizza business in NY. In the birthplace of American pizza, a non-traditional Staten Island transplant reigns supreme.

Is it great pizza? Despite being hugely popular, Yelp reviews are far more mixed than you might expect. The franchises’ 3 Manhattan locations receive 48% more negative reviews than the average among New Yorks’ top 25 most reviewed pizzerias. Even Artichoke’s best-rated location (East Village) ranks down at 18th in overall rating out of 25. Many people I have spoken with have also expressed mixed opinions. From both data and anecdote, people have either a love or hate relationship with Artichoke.

These mixed reviews beg the question: how is it that a pizza chain with mixed reviews and whose best-rated location scores below a 4.0 on Yelp has risen to become arguably NYC’s most popular? After all, a majority of restaurants fail within their first 3 years due to the cut-throat nature of the industry. Yet, not only has Artichoke achieved wild success, they’ve done so within a food service segment widely considered a commodity and priced their offerings more expensively than nearly all of their competitors.

Today, I’m going to show you the secret genius of Artichoke Basille’s and how they use key concepts in behavioral psychology to achieve their wildly successful business. Let’s walk through a typical customer’s experience eating at Artichoke to see this in action.

Habit Triggers

“Location, location, location” is what any real estate expert will tell you. This is doubly true in the extremely competitive restaurant business. Artichoke’s locations are surrounded by bars and open late (5 am every night!) to take full advantage of this.

You are at your weakest moment. Alcohol has physically lowered your willpower and you are at the whim of all cravings without hesitation. You notice a wafting aroma of pizza in the air and suddenly primal instinct takes over. Body leads mind and rational consideration is never part of the equation.

In the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the 5 most prevalent categories of habit triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action. Artichoke directly uses 3 of these types of triggers, location, time, and emotional state, to drive their customers’ behavior. By establishing locations close to popular bars, staying open past closing time, and catering to altered-state patrons post-inebriation, Artichoke enables habits to be established and maintained with greater ease.

Scarcity

Artichoke Basille’s isn’t the king of speed. With many competitors staffed to maximize pizza output, Artichoke staffs rather few people to help them. As a result, Artichoke’s pizza production is quite slow compared to your standard dollar-slice location. Ever wonder why a super-popular pizza place with such high late-night demand isn’t shoveling out pies at record speed? Maybe that’s because it’s on purpose. Artichoke Pizza could easily improve its logistics to serve customers faster, but should they?

“our typical reaction to scarcity hinders our ability to think.” 
― Robert Cialdini, Influence

Studies show that we value something more when we perceive it to be less available. Instinctually, our minds perceive scarcity as a meaningful signal that people who behave in their own self-interest find it valuable and, therefore, we should as well. Scarcity is one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, which is why companies often try to engineer the perception of scarcity to entice their audience to buy the underlying goods or services. Need an example? Just think of any iPhone launch ever.

So if you want a slice, you’ll have to wait your turn.

Social Proof

If you’ve been to any of Artichoke’s manhattan locations, you might recall one feature that is precariously missing: available seating. With so few seats on offer, customers often end up eating their entire meal outside on the sidewalk.

At this point in the customer journey, with any luck, Artichoke’s paced pizza production has cultivated enough demand that there’s now a line forming out the door. If it hasn’t, Artichoke has still ensured that those who have purchased pizza are likely to act as persuasive advertisements to anyone who walks by. Either way, Artichoke has designed its customer experience to entice the curiosity and interest of others.

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” — Walter Lippmann

When we see crowds, our instincts signal to us that we should also express mutual interest. This is because when making decisions is hard we use the proxy of other peoples’ choices to make our own. People generally act in their own self-interest, so it’s even easier to copy someone else’s actions than it is to listen to the advice of our friends. Choosing a restaurant may not seem hard, but anytime people consider numerous options and multiple variables uncertainty around choice rises and we are likely to look to the behavior of others to guide our decisions.

Choice Satisfaction

Menu. What menu? Artichoke Basilles’ locations share 5 options for pizza: artichoke, sicilian, vodka, crab, and margherita. No custom pies, no special “can I just get that with extra cheese?” Your choices are clearly listed in front of you. Artichoke’s limited menu forces customers to pick from the few available options and focus their attention on the meaningful differences in taste preferences.

“Apparently we always think we want choice, but when we actually get it, we may not like it. Meanwhile, the need to choose in ever more aspects of life causes us more distress than we realize.” ― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

When product and service offerings are differentiated by the variables that customers care most about, limiting customer choice is actually shown to lead to higher customer satisfaction and purchasing intent. In the absence of alternative options, customers are less likely to regret their purchasing decisions and more likely to form habits.

Effortless Pricing

Nearly every slice inside of Artichoke pizza costs the same — a “you can’t be serious” $5. Yes, Artichoke Basille’s is expensive. So much so that many people on Yelp ask why Artichoke’s price category is listed as $ instead of $$, but this pricing strategy isn’t actually a problem. It’s actually one of the best things that Artichoke does because it focuses its customers’ attention on which pizza slices they want rather than the prices of them. Five dollars is also a great price for its slices because it incurs remarkably low purchasing friction: $5 cash transactions can happen at the speed of a handshake.

Want to increase the price sensitivity of your customers? Make all of your prices slightly different and ambiguous. Watch your customers grow more price conscious and less confident in their purchasing intent. To decrease the price sensitivity of your customers and maximize purchase satisfaction, set your prices into tiers determined by significant differences in preferences. Then reduce your customers’ payment friction wherever possible. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT, people spend money until it hurts. The pain customers incur from purchasing is reduced by reducing the time spent in consideration and transaction.

Memorable Distinction

Artichoke Basille’s pizza isn’t like the pizza from most other pizzerias; it’s thicker, flakier, and heavier. Artichoke’s slices are more like a meal than most of the traditional variety, but its most memorable difference is texture. Every time you bite into a slice of Artichoke’s pizza you hear and feel the crunch. Serious Eats had this to say “The closest analogy I can give is that it has the eating qualities of a rustic Italian bread with a thick crust and chewy crumb. It’s not really like any other pizza I know.” Artichoke is not like other pizza, even if it’s considered worse! That unique difference makes it memorable.

When customers leave with your business’s desired takeaways, business grows. In Impossible to Ignore, cognitive neuroscientist, Carmen Simon shows us how to create memories that influence future behavior. Use unique contrasts in simple immersive experiences to establish vivid memories that inspire action.


Christian von Uffel helps businesses avoid lost sales and grow business through acquisition, engagement and retention strategies based on research in psychology.