Icons of Santa Cruz: popular Pizza My Heart t-shirts are the most affordable way to represent local pride
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I have at least half a dozen. Others in Santa Cruz County and throughout the Greater Bay Area can easily beat that number.
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If you survey the city, from Pacific Avenue to Capitola Village, from beaches to farmers markets, you’ll see the Pizza My Heart t-shirt everywhere.
Of course, if you’re counting, as some sort of badge of local pride, you’re likely to find more Giants caps or Santa Cruz Skateboards logos in the wild; but some days, maybe not. Sometimes the “PMH-T”, as it might be called, is the dominant totem of localism.
The Pizza My Heart t-shirt represents one of Santa Cruz’s greatest marketing triumphs, a branding strategy that fueled the growth of a pizza chain that started in Capitola 40 years ago and grew into expanded to 25 locations throughout the Bay Area, including three in Santa Cruz County and one in Monterey.
And while the T-shirt was a huge hit for the company, it was also a big plus for consumers. Anyone looking to show off a little NorCal love in their clothing choices, take note: a San Francisco Giants cap will likely cost you $40 or more. A Santa Cruz Skateboards or “Screaming Hand” t-shirt, this one costs around $25.
A “classic” Pizza My Heart t-shirt will set you back $7 – and that includes a free slice of pizza. Since the slice is around $5 on its own, the cost of the shirt is basically pocket change.
Chuck Hammers, president of PMH, said his company sells between 200,000 and 250,000 T-shirts a year, an astonishing number for a regional chain. No one knows how many PMH tees are currently in circulation or have been sold in total, but Hammers estimates around 3 million.
“It just keeps coming and going,” he said. “I keep thinking, oh, these [shirts] you have to get tired. [People] aren’t going to buy the old logo shirt forever, but it’s still selling.
As Hammers pointed out, there are different types of PMH T-shirts. The first is the “classic”, a white t-shirt with the company’s red oval logo underlined with the name of where the t-shirt was sold – Santa Cruz, Capitola, Redwood City, Blossom Hill, etc. .
The second category is the limited edition shirt which comes in a variety of colors with a number of designs. These come out a few times a year, and once the run is sold out, they become collector’s items.
The third is the employee t-shirt, which has its own individual design. To get one, you need to join the PMH team. Each year during the holiday season, employees receive a specially designed hoodie to mark the past year.
T-shirts have been an integral part of the Pizza My Heart business for 25 years. The idea was born when a burrito owner friend visited Hammers at one of his pizzerias. At the time, Hammers sold the classic T-shirt like most restaurants sell apparel—as an extra, displayed inside the store, but not tied to pizza sales.
According to Hammers, the conversation went something like this:
The burrito friend gestured at the T-shirt on the wall and said, “So how many did you sell?”
Hammers said, “Oh, maybe about 10 a year. Why?”
“I sold almost a thousand shirts,” the burrito man said.
The pizza delivery guy scoffed, “Come on, get out of here.”
“No, really,” said the burrito man. “I sell it for $10, but add a free burrito to it.”
Hammers worked in clothing in Palo Alto before getting into the pizza business. His friend’s approach instinctively made sense to him. He ordered a thousand shirts and set up the promotion, a $5 shirt and a free slice of pizza.
“We made the deal and boom,” Hammers said on a Zoom call, snapping his finger for emphasis. “We went through them like that.”
While classic white t-shirts remain the company’s staple (think of them as the pepperoni of the t-shirt business), it’s this second style, the limited-edition shirts, that allows Pizza My Heart to play with certain patterns and designs to develop and deepen its brand identity.
Don Reddin leads marketing and communications at Pizza My Heart. He is the main designer of the limited edition shirts. He and Hammers have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about corporate branding and how it applies to T-shirts.
The central idea is to keep the brand deeply tied to Northern California beach or surf culture, even if some PMH locations aren’t particularly close to the beach.
“Our overall feeling is that we’re branding ourselves as a Californian surf brand,” Reddin said, “a lot more into 60s, maybe 70s surf culture: longboard, laid back, a bit vintage, more Beach Boys .type of feeling.
The typography and iconography borrow from the old “surf-club” vibe of the golden age of surfing, far more so than the more aggressive shortboard era of the 1980s and later. Common motifs in designs include an old fashioned longboard surfboard. The California Bear Flag’s iconic grizzly bear is popular as a design (The California Bear Flag is not copyrighted, which is part of its popularity as a design. t-shirt symbol in general).
Limited edition shirts are also often tied to time and place. The year of conception is usually indicated, either prominently or subtly. And individual locations are also celebrated. The most recent summer shirt design is more deeply tied to PMH Bay Area locations than any prior design. The Santa Cruz shirts, for example, feature a likeness of Pacific Avenue, as well as a scene from the Steamer Lane surf spot. They are sold in two colors, sky blue and brown.
The pandemic has created a problem in the usual business of t-shirts at PMH. Supply issues have forced the company to scramble to meet demand. “I’ve almost emptied the United States of that blue and brown,” Hammers said of his new design, “and it’s not even summer yet.”
What is not presented so much on the PMH-T are the pizzas or the hearts. The company’s name is obviously a pun on the old blues song “Piece of My Heart,” but Hammers and Reddin always thought it was too easy to play to those tropes.
“I always had trouble using the heart in Pizza My Heart,” Hammers said. “I never wanted to get this cute with this.”
But when it was released on Valentine’s Day a few years ago, a special-edition shirt in black embraced the idea of pizza and hearts, but wrapped it in ribbon to suggest a sailor tattoo at the Ancient. “We thought, if you were to tattoo Pizza My Heart on your arm, what would it look like?” said Hammers.
Reddin turns to a small team of graphic designers and together, a few times a year, they brainstorm new designs and submit a handful of them to Hammers, who usually likes about half of them. For his part, Hammers often visits surf shops to browse racks and checks the websites of major surf brands, just to be aware of the styles and patterns others are using.
The urban design shirts are now in stores, sold alongside a new bear flag pattern in black and the classic white, which still accounts for about half of the t-shirts hitting Pizza My Heart stores. . The company encourages customers to send in photos of themselves or others wearing PMH gear in locations around the world.
Hammers saw his T-shirts all over California, from Tahoe to Huntington Beach. Once, while on a surf trip in Costa Rica, he saw someone wearing a PMH-T in a restaurant. Of course he had to approach the guy and say something.
“The #1 travel spot I see them in is Disneyland,” he said. “When my kids were a little younger, we made bets on how many Pizza My Heart t-shirts we were going to see that day. And we usually saw four or five a day.
Pizza My Heart has been a pizzeria that also sells T-shirts for four decades. But the demand and volume for PMH shirts suggests it may just as much be a t-shirt company that also sells pizza. The element that holds it together is a cultural thread, rooted in Santa Cruz County’s surf culture, evoking a laid-back vibe that millions of people living in Northern California call home.
“Maybe 5% of the world actually surfs,” Hammers said. “But 95% wish they were. So if you’re in Los Gatos, for example, you might not be at the beach, but you’d like to be. And that’s what we’re looking for. .