Rocky Rococo celebrates 40-year slice of success

Rocky Rococo has been a Madison — and Wisconsin — institution for four full decades now, but it nearly made enemies of some awfully powerful cosmic forces when it launched off State Street back on April 4, 1974, at a time when Madtown was still in its countercultural heyday.

Indeed, if you believe in the law of karma, you may wonder how the popular pizzeria ever made it beyond day two.

“We’re going to make mistakes. If you do everything that you can to make it right, it’s the best marketing you can possibly do.” — Rocky Rococo co-founder Wayne Mosley

“The second day we were open for business, we had a group of seven or eight people, and they were Hare Krishnas who were all vegetarians, and they said, ‘We’re going to try your pizza — we want peppers and onions and mushrooms and all the veggies on it,’ and we were, like, great,” said Wayne Mosley, Rocky Rococo’s co-founder. “So we sent the order for two big pizzas back to the kitchen, and at the time, we wrote P on the ticket stub for peppers and R for pepperoni.

“Of course, this being day two, they got it mixed up, and they read P as pepperoni, which went under the cheese. And here we brought out these pizzas and they all dished them out, and they started taking bites, and they’re all getting the pepperoni. Well, there was quite an explosion of excitement up front.”

It was a nightmare scenario worthy of a National Lampoon campus comedy, but the incident taught Mosley and his business partner, Roger Brown, a valuable lesson about customer service and good public relations.

“We went up and made it all right with them, and you know, some of those people still come to Rocky’s,” said Mosley. “I can think of two that I know face to face 40 years later. We fixed the problem, we had the good fortune to chat it up with them and get to know them a little, and they’ve been loyal customers for all these years.”

Indeed, says Mosley, those customers’ dedication to this now-thriving pizza chain has outlived their dedication to Krishna and Vishnu, but more importantly, it’s managed to shed some light on Rocky’s secret to success, while offering a clue about how the company has managed to thrive for so long in the face of fierce competition from below and above.

“That’s never changed in our business,” said Mosley. “We’re going to make mistakes. If you do everything that you can to make it right, it’s the best marketing you can possibly do. Ninety-nine percent of people are going to say, ‘Well, they cared. They really did whatever they could to solve my problem.’ We want a customer for more than that one transaction. We want them forever, so that really was a great lesson. It makes you feel good when you can fix a problem.”

Chicago pizza in Madison

Today, Rocky’s is well known and well established enough to survive any such kerfuffle, but when it first opened on Madison’s Gilman Street, just a few doors down from State Street, it could have gone the way of many startup restaurants that have opened their doors before and since.

But with its mix of playful marketing and its focus on pizza in the pan — a fairly novel offering back in ’74 — it’s established a solid bulwark in the face of competition from mega-chains like Pizza Hut and Papa John’s and local up-and-comers like Ian’s.

Today, Rocky Rococo boasts 40 locations, mostly in Wisconsin, and the corporate headquarters is in Oconomowoc. Mosley and Brown sold their interest in all but the Madison and La Crosse locations back in 1987, but they remain intimately tied to both the chain’s future and its past.

A Chicago native (and that’s evident from the distinctive Windy City timber in his voice), Mosley met Brown when they were both attending the University of Illinois. They were fans of Chicago-style pizza in the pan but thought it made more sense to open up a new market for the specialty. With nothing much more to start with than a little experience in the restaurant business, the two began scouting other college towns.



“There were already some pizza-in-the-pan guys who had opened up in Champaign-Urbana, and we said, ‘Well, this is a great idea, but why compete with the guys who are already here?’” said Mosley. “We went looking around the Big Ten campuses, and Madison always has had a lot of Chicago kids … and obviously it’s turned out to be a great place to do business.”

About a year and a half after opening their Gilman Street location, Mosley and Brown opened another location on State Street. From there, the concept took off, and they’d soon find out that you often have more worries when you’re at the top of the mountain looking down than when you’re scratching your way to the top.

Rocky Rococo co-founders Wayne Mosley and Roger Brown

One of the chain’s darkest hours came in the mid-’80s when they were threatened with a lawsuit over the restaurant’s name and its iconic Rocky Rococo mascot.

Of course, starting out as a one-shop operation, Rocky Rococo didn’t get its name from some focus-group-tested corporate branding process. In fact, the name originated with Firesign Theatre, a Los Angeles comedy troupe that rose to popularity in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Mosley and Brown were fans, and when it came time to name their restaurant, they remembered one of the troupe’s famous characters, Rocky Rococo. Naming the restaurant after an already established character may have been naïve, but everything was cool back in the live-and-let-live ’70s, and remained so even after Firesign got wind of Rocky’s fledgling operation.

“When we started Rocky’s and we had just the one store, [Firesign Theatre] came to Madison on tour, and they came into the restaurant and they go, ‘Hey, we’re Rocky, you’re not Rocky,’ and they starting gagging around with us and they gave us pictures that said, ‘To Rocky, from Rocky,’ and we hung them on the wall, and we went to see their show and had a good time,” said Mosley. “They came back the next year, and then we had two restaurants, and we partied with them all night. … And then later they broke up and they just disappeared, and we’d see occasionally that one guy would be in a movie or somebody would be doing something else, but we’re not paying a lot of attention.

“Now it’s 1985, and at that time we actually had 62 restaurants — we had taken on partners — and we get a letter from Firesign Theatre L.A. that said, ‘We own your name.’”

It was a jarring moment, but Mosley and his partners quickly had a powwow with their lawyers and found a way to head off the crisis.

“[Our lawyers] found the exact same kind of case with Conan the Barbarian in Austin, Texas,” said Mosley. “The guys called their pizzeria Conan’s, and the guy who did the Conan comic book comes in and draws Conan all over the walls. Then MGM buys the rights to the comic book … and they made a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and they sued the pizza guy and said, ‘We own your name.’ And the pizza guys fought them all the way up to one court below the Supreme Court, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and won.

“So now we’ve got this case, and we’ve got all these pictures [that say], ‘To Rocky, from Rocky,’ and we just say, hey, see this. And we just settled real fast.”

A slice of success

Today, of course, the Rocky Rococo name is synonymous with its signature pan-style pizza, breadsticks, salad bar, and individual slice boxes more than with its L.A. namesake. In fact, perhaps more than any other factor in the restaurant’s favor, its individually boxed slices have helped it grow.

“A big point of difference for us is pizza by the slice,” said Mosley. “We have more of a focus on in-restaurant business because we can do well at lunch, and that’s really important. You can come in and pretty quickly get a slice.”

That said, there are still obstacles out there. The latest is a record spike in cheese prices, which has affected everyone in the pizza industry.

“The cheese market — and obviously cheese is a gigantic portion of our costs — is at an all-time price record … and that’s just absolutely brutal.”

But for Mosley, the sometimes-harrowing ups and downs of the restaurant business are not enough to dampen his outlook.

“We’re happy to have been here 40 years, and it’s been quite an adventure,” said Mosley. “It’s been fun. It’s pretty exciting when you have a job and 40 years later, you come in every day and feel good about it. I’m happy to have a job like that.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.