Toppers Pizza’s CEO: We Thrive on a Good Rivalry
Scott Gittrich is a no-holds-barred kind of guy. As the founder and president of the 28-year-old Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza, he’s become known for his brash marketing tactics and run-ins with Big Four chain Domino’s. In 2018, Domino’s sent Gittrich a cease-and-desist letter in response to a Toppers’ us versus them campaign ad claiming that Domino’s ships frozen dough to its stores. Gittrich, meanwhile, says that the rivalry is all in good fun.
A Rivalry Backed by Respect
Gittrich was 20 years old when he took a job as a Domino’s delivery driver in 1984, working his way up to director of operations. “I had a great mentor in the franchisee that I worked for at Domino’s who was, and is, a really great person,” says Gittrich. “He taught me about how to treat people and how important values in business are, which is an important part of what Toppers is today.”
Gittrich says that Domino’s also taught him about scaling a business and multi-unit management. When the first Toppers store opened, Gittrich already had his eye on more.
“Even though I was focused on running one great pizza restaurant, I knew at the back of my mind that I was trying to build a restaurant concept that could scale,” he says. “I understood how to do that from what I had learned at Domino’s.”
All About the Toppings
While working for Domino’s taught him valuable business lessons, Gittrich says he knew he wanted to make a better pizza.
“I grew up in Domino’s, and while I was proud of that business, it had a reputation of being fast food pizza,” he says. “So, I conceived that we could make pizza from scratch, with my pizza sauce recipe and Wisconsin never-frozen mozzarella cheese.”
Gittrich says that Toppers, which illustrates its pizza boxes with the words “Never Settle,” still hand cuts its vegetables in the store. It uses basic ingredients in its dough from its original recipe, fresh-packed tomatoes in its pizza sauce, and mozzarella cheese from the same dairy it’s been using for 25 years.
“The key is that none of the ingredients have been frozen and we have no fillers,” says Gittrich. “I like to say that we respect pizza.”
According to Gittrich, it was unusual to put anything but traditional pizza toppings on a pizza when he started Toppers in 1991. “We were one of the first pizza places I knew of that put chicken on pizza,” he says. “That’s why we have the name Toppers, because our claim to fame has always been that we do unusual things with pizza.”
Today, some of the most popular pizzas at the restaurant are the Buffalo Chicken, Nacho Topper, Loaded Tot-zza, and Mac ‘N Cheese, according to Gittrich. The signature menu item at Toppers are the Topperstix, the brand’s customizable breadsticks, which appear regularly in bundled promotions. And the snacking options at Toppers continue to grow in number, with choices ranging from the new TopperTots to Pretzel Bites and Monkey Bread.
Embracing a Demographic
Over the years, Gittrich has learned how important it is to identify and stick by your key demographic. Toppers began as a pizzeria that appealed to the 18- to 34-year-old set, mostly located in college towns. The company briefly strayed from this demographic in the early 2000s, but was quick to return to it a few years later, according to Gittrich.
“In the early 2000s, we opened a few stores that didn’t serve campuses,” says Gittrich. “Then, in 2005, we had a realization that we needed to go back to our roots. No matter where we open a restaurant, we still are that rowdy, punch-you-in-the-face, talk smack, have fun kind of pizza place.”
Toppers’ social media focuses on a younger crowd with cheeky posts that poke fun at customers in a humorous way and walk the line between funny and raunchy. The brand also runs promotions that cater to younger crowds, such as, free pizza for a year to the first 50 people who wait in line at a new store opening.
A Focus on Technology
Appealing to a younger crowd also means being up on the latest technology, including online ordering and delivery options that work for the customer. Gittrich says about half of Toppers’ sales come from digital orders.
“So, I think of it like this: We’ve got 70 restaurants,” says Gittrich. “With half of our sales coming in on Toppers.com, it’s almost like 35 restaurants worth of the environment. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars to build out our restaurants, but half of our customers will only experience the restaurant through Toppers.com. So, we have to invest money and resources to keep that storefront fabulous.”
After shopping for a POS and online ordering system that would work for its brand, Toppers eventually decided that the best plan was to invest in a platform of its own that could be customized and updated on a regular basis. It’s rolling out its own proprietary POS and online ordering system, PIZMET, to all 70 of its stores under the guidance of the company’s new director of e-commerce Tina Revell.
“We’ve got PIZMET in 17 restaurants and we’ll have it in all of the restaurants by next July,” says Gittrich. “Our customers love it. They spend more, they come back more, and we’re just scratching the surface with what we’ll be capable of doing with this.”
Gittrich says that PIZMET is helping to lay a foundation that will help Toppers take advantage of technological opportunities for years to come.
You can’t mention technology without talking about third-party delivery services. And while Gittrich was initially against using a delivery aggregator, he’s come to accept them. “With the emergence of third-party delivery aggregators, suddenly every restaurant is a delivery competitor,” says Gittrich. “There’s no point in wishing that it didn’t exist. We prefer to get an order directly, but we love to sell pizza however people want to get it from us.”
Toppers recommends to its franchisees that they be on the top four third-party delivery aggregators in their respective markets, according to Gittrich.
“We feel confident that it’s an incremental sale,” says Gittrich. “There are some markets that are incredible aggregator markets; some people just go on Grubhub like they would Amazon or Hotels.com, not even thinking of individual companies.”
Unit Growth will Drive Future Profits
Gittrich says that Toppers will spend the next few years expanding further into familiar territories where the brand already has a fan following. “We plan to open in some smaller markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota,” says Gittrich. “These are areas where the brand is already strong, but they’re not flashy markets for others to go into.”
With current systemwide sales of $65 million and 70 units across 12 states (20 company owned), Toppers will focus on opening more locations and growing per unit sales over the next six years, according to Gittrich.
“Our goal is to be doing $200 million by 2025,” says Gittrich. “That’s averaging a volume of over a million dollars per unit in that high 100 to 200 store range.”