By Rebecca Patt, SVP Development, Wray Executive Search
You have a special employee culture at &pizza and refer to the employees as Family (F&m). What sets the organizational culture apart?
One of the things that’s most unique about &pizza is how committed the organization has been since the beginning to democratizing decision making. When Michael Lastoria founded the company, he was really determined to change the experience for the hourly workforce in the hospitality industry. The hospitality industry employs 10% of America’s workforce, so it’s a big opportunity in restaurants, retail, and everything else to be able to change that work experience and raise it up.
If you go back in time several decades, manufacturing was such a large employer of America’s workforce, and that changed as those jobs went away. The service industry started; it came along and took more of those lower wage jobs. And unfortunately, the work paradigm for many people in restaurants today is unsustainable for them. I think we’re seeing that right now with just how people are responding to the current economic environment. And so, for us, the one of the foundational elements of what makes the culture special is that approach to pushing decisions down as deep into your organization as close to the people who are most impacted by them as we can.
The second defining factor of the culture is this this concept and our first value of celebrating oneness: this idea that we want to create a spot where people can bring their whole selves to work each day, whatever that looks like. We’ve gotten to be known as a culture where there’s a real high sense of belonging and an opportunity for people to not have to conform but to bring everything of who they are to this environment and that that’s going to be celebrated and welcomed.
Are there some big decisions that the employees have pushed for, that are noteworthy?
Sure. I mean, I think one that stands out to me is that we have late-night pizza shops, particularly in urban environments, where a good chunk of our business pre pandemic was coming from after midnight sales. And depending on the city, the most common barrier to other folks being open at that time of day is how to get home at three in the morning or four in the morning safely, particularly if you’re relying on public transportation and you’re in a place like DC where that’s not running 24 hours a day. And rather than trying to come up with a solution, we asked our family members what should we do to make a difference for you in terms of helping make that something you’d want to work, and it led to a partnership with Lyft that led to a subsidized RIDE program that helped us get folks to and from the pizza shop at odd hours of the day; 430 in the morning, times when Metro wouldn’t be running and where in the absence of that reliable transportation you might end up with people hanging out in the shop waiting for transit to reopen at 6am or 7am.
It was a great suggestion for late night, but it turned out to be an incredible part of our response to the pandemic. Because we had this existing relationship with Lyft, and when transit around the country, particularly in the mid-Atlantic corridor came to a screeching halt in March of 2020, that partnership just expanded from late night to all day and allowed us to continue to give our family members an option to safely get to and from work during a time when mass transit was a scary proposition for folks.
Without their direct involvement, we may never have had that program to begin with and not only did it solve that original need, but it created a real opportunity for us to rally around and support our family during the early stages of COVID.
How about the customer experience. What makes it unique?
I think the culture of celebrating oneness in our family really pours out across the counter to our guests, and they notice the difference in how people feel to be working here, in their experience as a customer. I’m a firm believer that the guest experience is never going to exceed the employee experience and giving employees an opportunity to bring their whole selves to work gives them the best chance of giving 100% to a customer.
If you look through social ratings on Yelp, or Google or anything else about the brand, you notice a consistent theme of people recognizing that the people look happy; they look like their content to be there. The nature of the work &pizza is not terribly different than the nature of work at other similarly service model companies. It’s a fast casual service model, a walk the line service model in a shop. But employees feel really connected to that purpose and able to bring their whole selves to work and that shows up in the experience that customers have with the brand.
&pizzas don’t look like typical pizzas. Tell us about the vision of the products.
When the brand started, it was Michael’s vision, and as the founder, he was very much about trying to create something that signaled that everything about this experience was going to be a little bit different than you might expect it to be. In the same way that we’ve approached jobs and raising wages for this group of employees and putting their interests ahead of profit interests and aligning that in a way that allows for a win-win, that called for a scenario where the pizza wasn’t the same as everything else, to make a signal to folks that that this was going to be a different experience.
In addition to that obviously visual signal, the practical benefit of having a pizza like that is that if you ever think about ordering a big pizza and the difference in how the crust-to-center of pizza ratio can be, and you end up with a soggy center, the oblong pie shape just creates an opportunity to get the best of a pizza bite in each bite instead of having it be soggy in the middle, so there’s a functional benefit to that as well. The combination of what it signals plus the kind of experience that delivers is equal parts of the magic of how we got here.
Oblong. That’s the word, ha.
Oblong. Yes, that’s the word.
Tell us about all your growth and development plans at &pizza.
We’re very excited that we will open this calendar year anywhere between 17 and 20 new pizza shops in total on a base of about 40 going into the year. So, big growth. Then in 2022, we plan to open 30 to 35 more. It’s an aggressive growth curve, especially for a company our size, both in the percentage of that compounded growth rate but also just the sheer number of units.
We’ve been building towards this for a while. We’ve taken our time, set up the systems, worked on the people development pipeline, and refined our real estate strategy to focus on market clustering. So, we started here in DC, and right now span on the mid-Atlantic coast from Richmond up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but most of that footprint is between New York and DC. Over the next 18 to 24 months, 70 to 80% of those openings will be here, and that allows us to move faster and create more opportunity. And it’s easier because we’re leveraging the brand resonance that exists, the supply chain expertise that exists, and I think most importantly the people pipeline. It’s just always so much easier to ask somebody as part of their professional development to move seven miles down the road than it is to move seven states across the country to get their next big opportunity.
I spent the first chunk of my career in human resources and know well that in aggressive growth situations, usually the biggest governor to that growth is qualified, competent, excited leaders to help support it. Aggressive growth is balanced by a reasonable approach that the team has taken to managing risk and ensuring that we can make good on our promise of giving people an opportunity to advance.
They are all corporate stores?
Yeah, we have three licensed shops in the airports here in DC: one in Reagan and two in Dulles. But the other pizza shops and mobile kitchens that we operate are company owned.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve experienced since joining &pizza?
The most interesting thing is having a culture where there’s a commitment to scale and also to persistent innovation. One of things that’s great about this brand is that we’re willing to try new things. I mentioned mobile kitchens. We spent some time figuring out how to operate inside of a box truck with the full kitchen inside of a truck that’s a bit bigger than a food truck. The learnings you get from understanding how to operate so efficiently in 150 square feet unlock all sorts of unique opportunities to think about growing the brand differently and they also just help make the core business better. It’s that mindset of experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what can be done that’s led to some of the culinary innovation and equipment innovation we’ve seen. It’s been interesting to be a part of a team that’s building something to scale and also doing its best to hold on to that entrepreneurial spirit as well.
What else is innovative and interesting about &pizza?
One thing that’s interesting about &pizza that’s starting to become more and more evident of how prescient it is, is that we’ve been focused for years on text messaging as the primary form of communication with our guests and with our family. Several years ago, I think people looked at it skeptically to go with only text, but as the distractions and the options in the digital sphere have increased over the last four to five years, it’s really fascinating how many people are moving towards text messaging now today, whether it’s for marketing communications or employee communications, or just in general to cut through the noise of another app, or another piece of software.
People want simplicity. The investment that we’ve made in that has really created a foundation for this one-to- one communication that is both great customers and for developing a real intimate relationship at scale. But it’s also great for employee communications because rather than asking somebody to be in multiple systems to get their information, we’re just texting them. And everybody out there is more apt to go to bed with an unread email than an unread text message. And so that sort of stickiness of communication enables the brand to maintain that special sauce as it continues to grow rapidly.
Need to recruit top executive talent for your restaurant team? Contact Rebecca Patt at firstname.lastname@example.org.