Operations

How &Pizza is bringing its edgy mojo back

The Washington, D.C.-based chain has a (sort of) new CEO who has made lots of changes. His message to workers: Uncover those neck tattoos and crank up the music. You can be you.
The Farmer's Daughter pizza is scheduled to return to the menu next week. | Photo courtesy of &Pizza.

Mike Burns, the new CEO at &Pizza, wants to make the pizza chain edgy again.

Formerly the COO of Rave Restaurant Group, Burns took over the CEO role at &Pizza in November from founder Michael Lastoria, who remains in an advisory role for the 55-unit chain.

The transition, however, wasn't announced until Thursday, even though the company “&” logo tattoo on Burns’ arm had long healed.

Mike Burns

Mike Burns | Photo courtesy of &Pizza

Why the delay? “We wanted to get our house in order first,” he said.

Over the past four months, Burns has made some pretty big changes at the Washington, D.C.-based fast casual chain, including a complete revamp of the tech stack resulting in a new website, app, loyalty program, POS and, coming soon, the addition of kiosk ordering systemwide.

He is also launching franchising for the first time. The company has already refranchised three corporate units in New Jersey to a franchisee who plans to open five more.

Burns has also streamlined operations, cutting a handful of positions from the corporate office, and elevating district managers.

And he is reworking the menu, with some old favorites coming back next week.

All of this, he said, to reinvigorate a brand that peaked in 2018 and then became a bit lost. The average unit volume is just under $1 million, down about 20% from pre-Covid levels.

A big part of what needs to be fixed is the culture, said Burns. He wants to bring it back to the “anti-establishment” vibe that made the concept stand out from the beginning.

“When Michael Lastoria started it in 2012, &Pizza had an edge to it,” said Burns. “It was different from every other pizza place. The music was loud. The employees were cool. You could just be yourself. It was very non corporate.”

But then, the brand “lost its way, as a lot of restaurants did,” starting before Covid and through the pandemic, he said. “And they made some decisions that I thought weren’t right for the brand.”

Workers, for example, were asked to turn their (then backwards) hats around, tuck in their shirts and turn down the music, he said.

It’s not clear why that happened. The venture-capital firm RSE Ventures invested in &Pizza in 2017, and remains an investor. RSE is also an investor in restaurant companies like Fuku, Milk Bar and Bluestone Lane cafes.

But getting that counter-culture culture back won’t be hard because the playbook is there, Burns said.

“We want to be different. Our pizza’s shaped different. We want our employees to be different,” he said.

That’s why the company bought the domain that will be some variation of “Chick-Fil-A won’t hire you dot com,” which isn’t up or active yet, but it’s coming. &Pizza is planning to launch a big push for workers soon, and the website will be a part of that.

The message to workers is that “if they have green hair or tattoos on their neck”—style choices that more straight-laced brands like Chick-Fil-A might shun—they’re welcome at &Pizza, said Burns. “Because that’s our customer. Our customer is very counter culture.”

Lastoria has long been an advocate of a higher federal minimum wage and &Pizza paid $15 per hour before it became mandated in some jurisdictions. Now the chain’s starting wage is $18 per hour in some markets, said Burns.

That emphasis on paying a living wage has not gone away, but Burns said he wants to rebuild a sense of family among team members, who are called “f&m,” pronounced “fam.”

“We really think our advantage is not just monetary, but that you can be you,” he said.

The irreverent tone will also return to marketing. Next week, for example, the chain is relaunching what was the Dill Pickle Pizza as the “Dickle.”

Other former favorites are returning to the menu, including the Farmer’s Daughter, a pie with sunny-side-up eggs and whole strips of bacon on it; and the mushroom-topped Moonstruck Pizza.

And coming soon: Burns plans to extend the line of knots as a snack option. &Pizza has always offered the signature knots, but soon there will be Hot Knots, studded with banana peppers and bacon. Down the road, there will be dessert knots and other options.

But don’t expect to see the addition of salads or sandwiches. Burns wants to keep the focus on pizza.

Work on the technology side will create efficiencies, he said. The company has sold its in-house-created tech stack, which was once industry leading with features like text ordering.

But keeping it in house took a lot of effort, focus and time, he said. So the chain has partnered with Toast, Olo and Thanx to revamp the tech stack. On Tuesday, the chain launched a new website, app and loyalty program, as well as a new POS system.

“Now we have a tech department of two people,” he said. “I don’t need to spend salary on IT. I can spend it on operations and marketing, which is really what’s going to drive the business.”

Also rolled out systemwide are kiosks to help streamline ordering. The equipment is in restaurants, but they’re not going to be turned on until April 1. Two stores are “battle testing” the kiosks this week, which will be an option for guests. They can still order from humans at the register, if they prefer.

With Thanx, the new loyalty program is called the Dead Presidents Club, with tiered levels, based on “&coins” earned.

It starts with George Washington, sporting a “grill,” and then moves up to Lincoln with a mohawk. The top tier is Ben Franklin, because “it’s all about the Benjamins.” (And, no, they don’t care that Franklin wasn’t a president because anyone can be in the Dead Presidents Club, said Burns.)

dead presidents club

The loyalty program is now called the Dead Presidents Club. |Images courtesy of &Pizza.

The tech overhaul also paves the way for franchising.

Long fully corporate owned, three company restaurants have been refranchised to an operator in New Jersey, a franchisee who also operates Jersey Mike’s and Dunkin’ units. In addition to taking the three &Pizza units there, the franchisee has committed to open another five.

Meanwhile, Burns said &Pizza is in the process of filing franchise documents to further grow the brand, starting in adjacent markets where it operates.

There are no immediate plans to refranchise more units, though Burns said they might consider it with the right partner, but only outside the D.C. area.

Looking ahead, growth will likely include roughly one corporate location opening for every three franchise units. The next company owned location is scheduled to open in Bethesda, Md., in August at Mongtomery Mall.

Expect to see more marketing from &Pizza. Pi Day, or March 14, was a big day for &Pizza because it’s the day some devoted fans choose to marry at some of the chain’s restaurants. (Weddings are free.)

AndPizza Wedding

Michael Lastoria (left), Mr. and Mr. Adelman and Mike Burns. | Photo courtesy of &Pizza.

In fact, on Thursday, both Burns and Lastoria were wedding hopping and, at some events, Lastoria was officiating.

Next up is the cannabis-inspired April 20 holiday of sorts, known as 4/20, another big marketing day for &Pizza, and Burns said there are promotions in the works that will likely be something like pies for $4.20. Stay tuned.

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