Expand your business without losing your cool
“Papa” John Schnatter once referred to his 4,700-unit chain as the country’s largest independent pizza company. It’s hard to think of an entity that’s publicly traded and advertises during the Super Bowl as independent, but Schnatter clearly sees value in avoiding perception as a generic corporation. Big chains have a reputation for lacking personality, an attribute independent pizzerias have in spades. But expanding beyond a single location doesn’t automatically mean diluting your brand to satisfy the lowest common denominator. Pizzerias are finding creative ways to add locations without losing the magic of their home bases.
Phil Hartman cringes every time he hears someone refer to his pizzeria as a chain, but with 16 locations across six states and more in the works it’s hard to call Two Boots anything else. The décor at every location has the same funky Cajun-inspired vibe, but the details are unique thanks to mosaics, tables and counters designed by local artists. Each location features a “home slice” designed to reflect the local neighborhood, beyond the standard pizza menu they all share. In NYC’s Lower East Side, you’ll find a pie topped with pickles while Nashville’s Two Boots gets hot fried chicken on its indigenous slice. It’s a really smart way to give each store its own character while maintaining a level of continuity among locations.
Along the same lines, Paul Gianonne doesn’t want satellite locations to be exact duplicates of his primary Paulie Gee’s restaurant in Brooklyn. He knows that much of his success is due to the fact that he’s almost always in the restaurant. That’s usually a problem for someone planning expansion, but Paulie devised a way to essentially clone himself. Rather than hire managers for each location, Gianonne is grooming fans and friends to be owner-operators. All they have to do is follow some general design aesthetics, keep 50 percent of the flagship pizzeria’s menu, and play Paulie’s curated classic rock playlist and they’re good to go. They also have to be at the pizzeria the vast majority of the time it’s open. It’s a modified franchise model that gives each store the freedom to become whatever it needs to be for its community.
Franchising is one way to ensure high standards by sharing responsibility, but I’m seeing momentum in another model coming out of California. Kirk Vartan and Marguerite Lee are in the process of converting one of their Slice of New York locations near San Jose, California, into a cooperative. They opened a second shop just under a dozen miles away from their first location back in 2011 and found that their staff was interested in more than just slinging slices. Shifting to a model in which all workers have an equal stake in the business dangles the same carrot off the end of the stick for everyone in the shop. It establishes a shared work ethic and encourages a powerful emotional connection not often found in quick-serve restaurants. Other Bay Area pizzerias, such as Cheese Board Collective and Arizmendi Bakery have proven that it’s possible to expand both the business and the passion behind it.
Opening multiple locations doesn’t have to force you into the abyss of anonymity. You can successfully expand your business without sacrificing character if you pay attention to the attributes that resonate with your guests rather than those that will simply make it easier to run a cookie-cutter operation.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.