Keynote / Michael Lastoria / Wednesday, March 29 / 8:15 a.m.
Our Wednesday morning keynote speaker, Michael Lastoria, wasn’t afraid to break some assumed rules of the business while launching and growing the &pizza chain, which currently has 20 company-owned stores in and around Washington, D.C. Thanks to a recent infusion of $25 million of growth capital, his unique fast-casual concept now is poised to enter other major markets, including New York City. We posed a few questions to Lastoria about his approach to business and branding.
Pizza Expo: It appears you started your career in marketing and later founded creative agencies in New York. How did you get from branding and media campaigns to sausage and pepperoni?
Michael Lastoria: It wasn’t so much a jump from marketing to pizza as it was a jump from branding others to building my own brand. I began my career building brand-first businesses, and eventually I decided to stop launching others and just start my own. &pizza is essentially the manifestation of everything I’ve learned — by way of success and failure — in my years marketing other businesses.
PE: You’ve said that there is a “ton of value in inexperience.” How did you use your newness to the pizzeria industry to advantage while launching &pizza?
ML: Industries have patterns. They have rules. They have norms and standard-bearers. As a newcomer, I was looking at the industry with
untrained eyes. That meant I could break the rules without even knowing I was doing something that went against the grain. Of course, that was the goal, but it helps to play the card of naiveté when some of the bigger guys start challenging the way you’re changing things.
PE: How did you settle on fast casual versus other concepts? And why make it such a point to locate in second- or third-choice neighborhoods?
ML: In launching my business, I didn’t ‘settle’ on any single decision. It wasn’t something I fell into. I studied the marketplace and the opportunities, and saw a big one. Regarding our locations, we don’t see them as ‘second or third choice’ neighborhoods. That’s one of the industry standards that we don’t subscribe to. Everybody eats. And in our mind, eating should be a shared experience, something that brings us together, something that communities can point to and say, ‘That’s us.’ We built our business in places where we saw strong senses of community. It wasn’t about income brackets or ‘desirability.’ We want to build &pizza into a symbol of something, and to do that, we have to serve, reflect and augment community.
PE: So you walk into a financing meeting with banker types in your leather vest and ampersand T-shirt. How do you keep them from leaving early for the golf course?
ML: &pizza has built a recognizable, strong brand, and with it a thriving business. It doesn’t matter what I wear when I explain that.
PE: Is there a perfect company size for &pizza — a perfect number of stores and employees?
ML: As long as we stay true to our founding pillars, there’s no ceiling on how big we can be.
PE: What should Pizza Expo attendees who come to your keynote expect to hear that might impact their thinking about their own businesses?
ML: Not a whole lot about pizza.
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