MOD Pizza amps up mission to find jobs for those with barriers to employment

The fast-casual chain is launching a new coalition with non-profit partners to broadly expand job placement and support for the previously incarcerated and workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Mod Pizza execs and workers
Co-founders Scott (top left) and Ally (bottom right) Svenson with MOD Pizza squad members./Photo courtesy of MOD Pizza.

Since it was founded in 2008, MOD Pizza has been a home for people often overlooked as potential workers, like the previously incarcerated or those with disabilities.

Now the “purpose-led, people-first” chain is leaning into that mission with a unique new national program designed to tear down the employment barriers for such workers, the chain’s Chief Restaurant Officer Becky Mulligan said Wednesday at the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix.

MOD Pizza announced the launch of the new MOD Opportunity Network, or MOD O.N., a national coalition dedicated to both hiring people with barriers to employment, and giving them the support they need to thrive—with the help of a number of non-profits doing that work.

To start, MOD O.N. will be dedicated to two underserved populations: the “justice-involved” and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD.

“We say talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not,” said Mulligan. “These are people who may not even get an interview, or who don’t have the support they need to fill out an application.”

Over the past year, MOD has been working with the Hospitality Opportunities for People ReEntering Society (HOPES), a pilot created by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation with the Department of Corrections, community-based organizations and state restaurant associations to help the justice-involved find work in restaurants.

The launch of MOD O.N. creates more of a formal partnership, not only with HOPES but also a broader range of non-profits that will allow the chain to expand and serve more potential “squad members,” as workers at MOD are called.

In addition to HOPES, the non-profits that have signed on to work on the program include:

  • Goodwill Industries International, a leading workforce provider of job training and placement for those impacted by the justice system.
  • FareStart, which provides job training and helps employers create more inclusive workplaces.
  • Best Buddies International, which offers support to IDD workers in the workplace.
  • Meadowlark Employment Services, a provider of job training and support for folks with IDD in Oregon and Idaho.

MOD O.N. will launch initially in 11 states, serving 29 cities, but Mulligan said the goal is to expand the network into at least 21 states by the end of 2024.

“We haven’t had agreements [or] contracts in the past,” said Mulligan. “So where we work with them, now we are formalizing that and we’ll be getting into what does that mean, what are we going to do, what are you going to do, and how are we going to work together in a really intentional way.”

Mulligan also hopes others in the restaurant industry can learn from MOD’s experience and join the effort.

“The question I get frequently is how do I start?” she said. “That was the driving force for us to create the network to make it easier to figure out how to create opportunity.”

MOD now also has data from the company’s own experience with hiring those who face such barriers. As the restaurant industry struggles to find workers, MOD has managed to keep turnover relatively low, in part because the chain sees a rich pool of talent in underserved communities, Mulligan said. About half of MOD Pizza’s more than 10,000 workers describe themselves as “difficult to place.”

Nearly 80 million adult Americans are justice-involved, according to the advocacy group The Sentencing Project, and the underemployment rate for those individuals is five times higher than the general population. And getting a job can be a key factor in recidivism and helping people get integrated back into society.

“Underemployment with this group is just as much an issue as unemployment,” Mulligan said.

She shared the example of one MOD squad member who had been released from prison after a conviction.

That woman came to work at MOD and now she’s a GM. She’s married, expecting a baby and recently bought a house. On a recent visit, the GM told Mulligan, “I’m seven years sober today and my life is going great, and I owe it all to MOD.”

MOD has found that squad members with previous justice involvement tend to have better retention rates and are promoted more often. And 90% of those workers say they feel a sense of belonging at MOD, Mulligan said.

For workers with IDD, that sense of belonging was even higher, at 96%.

An estimated 26% of adults in the U.S. live with some form of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those with IDD, 85% don’t have a paid job. An estimated 40% of those with a disability experience social isolation.

Mulligan said MOD’s squad members with IDD have double the retention rate. She cited examples of workers who find joy in creating the perfect pizza crust, or other aspects of their job. “It becomes their superpower and helps build confidence,” she said.

Hiring the underserved doesn’t always work out well, she admitted, but the bulk of these underserved candidates end up being engaged and passionate workers, she said.

“It’s good for business to bring in people who made a choice to do right,” said Mulligan.

The move is part of the 540-unit chain’s ongoing social impact strategy. Scott Svenson, MOD Pizza’s CEO was also at the RLC conference on Wednesday and described how the brand was conceived to use “pizza as a platform” to contribute to the communities where they operate.

Said Mulligan, “We’re not just driving store profit for profit. We’re driving profit to fuel our purpose.”

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