Meet the 'Jesus of pizza'
With shoulder-length hair, a bushy beard, the lankiness of a street messiah and the clothing to match, Michael Lastoria looks more like the lead from “Jesus Christ Superstar” than CEO of a pizza chain aiming to stretch capitalism’s possibilities. The impression isn’t exactly undermined when the onetime ad exec starts explaining his gospel. Read on to see what we mean.
Crafting a creative brand
You won’t hear any “thee’s” or “thou’s,” but the rationale behind Lastoria’s brainchild, &Pizza, doesn’t abound in the usual chain lingo. The company’s workforce is “the tribe,” a group whose members are known to tattoo themselves with the ampersand to show solidarity with the brand. &Pizza picks up the cost of the tats, and has a standing offer to pay for any customer’s permanent show of loyalty, too.
Managers are “shop leaders,” collaborators on special events or co-branding opportunities are “little giants,” and don’t call the chain’s 22 branches “units.” Each is a “pizza shop,” with its own design and personality.
The language is a reflection of Lastoria’s efforts to make the chain a different place to work and eat. More dramatic are efforts like lobbying for a $15 minimum wage and working toward that goal society-wide with a coalition called Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.
“It’s not the most popular option” among fellow restaurateurs, Lastoria acknowledges. “I’m 37 years old. I have a lot of shared interests with our tribe members. I want to be helpful not only to them, but to everyone earning a minimum wage.”
Yet his company is no commune. Lastoria talks about paying a $15 minimum wage “if it’s humanly possible,” suggesting that not every market can be on that scale.
He also is no stranger to high finance. Coming out of college, he started a company that developed technology for the advertising industry and sold it in short order to a private-equity firm. “I call it my MBA,” he says. “I learned quite a bit about what it took to start a company and scale a business. We had multiple offices and over 100 employees. And reporting into a PE company makes you learn the financial aspects.”
He declines to reveal sales figures for &Pizza, whose units—er, pizza shops—are all run by the company. Technomic estimates average sales per store at just under $1.6 million and pegs 2016 systemwide sales at $26.1 million. &Pizza has opened two stores so far this year, with several more under development in New York City, outside its Maryland, Virginia and D.C. stronghold. The NYC development is funded by a $25 million infusion from the private-equity firm Avalt, which is also an investor in Manhattan-based Dig Inn.
&Pizza is Lastoria’s third business venture; he also started and sold an ad agency that specialized in customers “with mission, vision, balance and purpose,” he recalls. “I dreamed of a position where I could take all of that experience, a real purpose-driven business,” he said. His objective was hatching a startup that would combine diversity, unity and connectedness, or what &Pizza’s stated core values are today.
A pizza chain was the obvious choice back in 2010 because “pizza is fun and light-hearted,” Lastoria says. The fast-casual pizza market also wasn’t clogged with brands back then.
Setting the chain apart
He and business partner Steve Salis, with whom he split late last year, decided to do things differently. &Pizza’s pies are oblong, and its packaging is also off-sized. Toppings are available at a fixed price rather than per each addition.
The chain makes its own sodas and teas, and the music is louder than most restaurants permit, a nod to the sense of being a gathering place. But the pizza is cooked in high-temperature conveyor ovens that reduce the prep time to just a few minutes, now a staple of the booming fast-casual pizza market.
The pizza chain is also trying a variation on its concept, called &Bar, comprising a lounge attached to one of its pizza shops in Washington, D.C.
Staff as a centerpiece
Where the pair really wanted to do things differently was in staffing. “Culture was really important, knowing this is very much a people business,” Lastoria recalls. “We started off [without] a mission statement because our mission statement was literally to live our core values.”
The startup hired people “not on their ability to do a skill-based position,” but on how well they fit into the tribe, he continues. “We wanted them to feel they are a part of something.” The staff was going to be “a group of friends who come together,” not cogs in a machine.
“We went at it differently,” says Lastoria, who also holds the title of creative director. “Always assuming people will do the right things. Setting up policies and procedures, but not too many policies and procedures—just enough to get the restaurants up and running.”
Toward that end, employees could wear what they wanted, and body art or piercings were no problem. And the chain could be led by someone the staff nicknamed The Jesus of Pizza.
If that matters at all, says Lastoria, it’s as validation of &Pizza’s efforts to be a different sort of workplace.
“I can be myself. I can be comfortable on the job,” he says. “I can talk to my co-workers the same way I talk to my friends. I can talk to my supervisors the same way I talk to a family member.
“My role is to lead by example,” he continues. “To make sure this company is always creatively led.”