Inside America's Love Affair with &pizza
Big changes are coming to this fast-casual pizza chain that stands out by standing up for its employees.
When the build-your-own pizza shop &pizza opened its doors for the first time in 2012, it stood out in a lot of ways—the pizzas were oblong, the space was eclectic, and the employees, which are affectionately called the “tribe,” were promised fair wages.
In fact, when company founder Michael Lastoria began planning &pizza with co-founder Steve Salis (no longer with the company), he was more interested in building a cultural movement around a set of values, not so much in changing the game of pizza, according to newly appointed company president and chief operating officer Andy Hooper.
“The purpose behind &pizza was always to find an opportunity to have an authentic expression of a value set that we felt was tribe first in a space like fast casual that doesn’t necessarily have a reputation for being employee first,” Hooper says. “So, when the first shop opened in 2012, it was very much an opportunity for us to leverage the symbol portion of &pizza—the ampersand—which is a representation of inclusivity, connectedness, and togetherness. It was also an opportunity to share all of that through the sharing of something like pizza.”
Seven years after its first store opening, &pizza has welcomed restaurant No. 36, with plans to open 25–35 more stores in the next two years, Hooper says. With a firm handle on operations and infrastructure, &pizza is primed for expansion and striking while the pizza oven is hot. “Having successful shops outside of our home market helps pave the way for us to feel more comfortable about accelerating growth,” Hooper says.
An impressive feat: &pizza currently has more units than Shake Shack, Chipotle, and Sweetgreen did at the same point in their respective histories.
Staffing up for success
Three important elements need to be present for successful expansion, Hooper says. “The intersection of accelerating growth is always a multi-pronged approach,” he says. “You have to have the people, the product, and the capital, and they all have to align with one another.”
New additions to the executive team and investors are helping position the brand up for success. “We’ve been setting up the infrastructure to scale,” says Hooper, who previously held leadership roles at Cafe Rio Mexican Grill and Burger King. “We need to change the orientation of the brand from a purely shop-by-shop approach to making sure we’re expanding without diluting what makes it special at scale, which is the challenge that many multi-unit restaurant operators face.”
James Beard Award finalist Erik Bruner-Yang joined &pizza as executive chef in July, revamping the menu for the first time since its 2012 opening. Based in D.C., Bruner-Yang previously held positions at Spoken English, Brothers and Sisters and Maketto. Bruner-Yang is putting his own spin on the menu, starting with the brand’s newest store, located on Wall Street in New York City.
Lastoria, who has been hands on since day one, relinquished day-to-day operations to Hooper so he could focus on growing the brand. “Michael and I have partnered for the last 18 months on this ultimate transition,” Hooper says. “Michael is a creative force and is responsible for the vision and direction of the company. We want to give him an opportunity to spend as much of his time as possible thinking about growth.”
Most recently, Hooper says, Lastoria spent time with the culinary team at the new Wall Street store. “They’re really trying to push menu innovation beyond where we’ve been historically,” he says. “With Michael there, they were able to produce a new menu in two and a half weeks.”
In addition to Bruner-Yang and promoting Hooper from chief people officer, &pizza recently brought on John Reepmeyer as CFO. He previously held the same role at Roti Mediterranean Grill and was VP of finance at Potbelly.
Furthermore, &pizza’s board is stacked with fast-casual experts and other restaurant lifers. It includes Avalt (a private equity firm with extensive experience, including Dominos and Outback); Kevin Reddy (chairman of the board; former COO of Chipotle and CEO of Noodles); Adam Eskin (founder/CEO of Dig); Sandy Beall (founder of Ruby Tuesday, Blackberry Farm); Doug Jacob (co-founder JWALK); and Matt Higgins (CEO/co-founder of RSE Capital and recent guest Shark Tank shark).
First-time menu changes
With Bruner-Yang on board, Hooper says, they used the new store opening as an opportunity to rethink the menu. “The changes affected everything from our original pies to new products, such as the addition of a Stromboli, garlic knots and seasonal offerings,” Hooper says. “We’ve always taken a lot of pride in the quality of the ingredients that we serve, but, in the past, we haven’t shared that food story with people, so I think Erik will be instrumental in that.”
Once the new menu proves itself at the new Wall Street store, Hooper says, the next logical step will be to adopt the menu at other local restaurants before making a systemwide change.
The menu has always focused on customization and choice. “For one price point, you can put whatever you want on a pizza,” Hooper says. “For those who want more guidance, we have options like the American Honey, which is a riff on a traditional pepperoni pie, including, on top of the pepperoni and mozzarella, arugula, goat cheese, red chili flakes and hot honey. The other standby is the Maverick, which is like our meat lover’s pie, with salami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Parmesan and a basil pesto drizzle.”
On the beverage side, &pizza has crafted its own soda since day one. “All of the soda we serve is our formula, made with real cane sugar and naturally caffeine free, created with the help of a copacker,” Hooper says. “Now, some of our most popular sodas, which have traditionally been sold in fountain format, are now sold in cans as of a few months ago, which has been great for order ahead and delivery.”
Above all, &pizza is focused on bringing out the best in its staff. “We want people to be the best version of themselves rather than fit into a box or a standard of what a tribe member should be,” Hooper says. “I think that’s the key to maintaining the secret sauce, because when you get the very best of each individual person and that diversity shines through, that resonates.”
In its most recent annual employee engagement survey, Hooper says that 90 percent of “tribe members” responded that they were free to be the person they are and are accepted for it. “When we hold our quarterly all-tribe meeting, it all shines through,” Hooper says. “People see &pizza as a place they can be themselves, and that’s a real differentiator.”
The company’s quarterly all-tribe meetings have taken place for the past year and a half. The meetings are an opportunity for everyone to come together and not only get updates about the company, but also ask questions and receive immediate feedback. “I think one of the mistakes that leaders make in multi-unit businesses is that the more it grows, the more disconnected they get from the frontline tribe,” Hooper says. “These meetings help maintain the authentic connection to the tribe, making sure they know they always have an opportunity to tell us what we can do to better serve them.”
For a more immediate response than meetings, &pizza offers a text short code that its staff or customers are invited to use. “The short code is the zip code of Washington D.C.—20003,” Hooper says. “Tribe or customers can reach out to us on that text line with suggestions, questions, casual conversations, and we also use it for our tribe meeting to solicit questions for the Q&A.”
The company’s commitment to staff is working, with dozens of staff members showing their solidarity over the years by tattooing themselves with the &pizza ampersand logo.
Fair wages for all
&pizza is regularly recognized for its commitment to providing fair wages for employees, which attracts job seekers when a new store opens. When the job posting went live for the most recent unit, &pizza received 1,000 applications, Hooper says. He adds systems are in place to assess applications. “We’re using an assessment that’s proprietary and focuses almost exclusively on judgement, which is aligned with our view that people should just be themselves,” Hooper says. “It’s not the traditional pre-employment assessment; it basically assesses how well people make decisions when they’re at their best.”
Lastoria has been an outspoken supporter of minimum wage laws, even campaigning on Capitol Hill. “The first reason behind why we offer fair wages is because we feel it’s the right thing to do,” Hooper says. “On a human level, treating people with dignity and respect is a good spot to be in. Then, we operate in some expensive places to live and work, so, the right thing to do, for us, and we believe for the industry, is to advocate to allow someone to have a decent quality of life.”
Not only have fair wages been working for &pizza’s staff, Hooper says, it works for the business, too. “We’ve been building a growing and profitable brand, one that has four-wall margins that are at the top of the industry, and one that has a higher average wage, then most of our competitors.”
Hooper recognizes that &pizza operates in high-cost markets, but also says that business owners shouldn’t shut down the conversation about paying a fair wage because they think they can’t be profitable if they do so. “I would suspect that many of those people haven’t tried,” Hooper says. “One thing I’m proud of about &pizza is that we’ve tried, and we’re doing it.”
Customization with an eye on growth
&pizza locations have stood out for their eclectic design and unique way of fitting into each neighborhood, and Hooper says that will continue as the company expands. “We’re always going to look for an authentic way for the shops to fit the neighborhood, whether it’s the design of a wall or ceiling inside the shop or a patio outside,” he says. “There are a lot of elements that you can standardize at a high-growth company that don’t betray the customization, such as fixtures and furniture.”
When planning locations for the next three dozen stores, &pizza will stick close to home. “We’ll try to be as broad-reaching as we can, because we believe that our purpose is worth spreading,” Hooper says. “In the short term, the most prudent and efficient way to grow the brand is predominantly leveraging where we’ve already planted flags in the market.”