Ashley: My name is Ashley Csaki, Senior Director of Content & Experience at Momentum and it is my pleasure to introduce Michael Lastoria, CEO and cofounder of &pizza, the first Washington DC based fast casualty pizza concept, rapidly expanding in the mid-Atlantic region. Welcome Michael.
Michael: Thanks Ashley. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Our pleasure. Tell us a little bit about &pizza. What distinguishes your company from other pizza retailers out there?
Michael: &pizza is a Washington DC based, what we call counterculture brand, known for our critically acclaimed pizza and craft beverages, our ampersand tattooed employees and the broader fight for living wage that we’ve been working on over the past couple of years. We started &pizza in 2012 in Washington DC’s historic H Street northeast corridor and a few things that are different – first and foremost are food outside of being craveable, is also very clean. We call this cleany. So we pay up, we serve up local produce, organic dough, our pizzas do not have MSGs and no corn syrup is used. That’s sort of our word and our commitment. We also partner with small likeminded brands who are doing big things, and we’ve been a huge supporter of the communities we serve through our &Charity and we support over a 1000 causes to date. We also are really, really focused on our employees, we call them our tribe. We have a tribe first mentality of paying a living wage, listening, respecting and think we are stronger for it. And the brand is really focused on cultivating creativity. So we innovate, we create and we never stop. We have this motto that yesterday is then and tomorrow is now. So we are very much cutting to get the grain and trying to do something different, create what our version of the pizza shop of the 21st century should be and what our version of a consumer brand is.
Ashley: Excellent. And I know that &pizza has been described as millennial friendly. So explain to us how you are managing to resonate with that demographic.
Michael: Well, I was born in 1980 so I guess some could question whether I am on the cuff to be a millennial or not. But I think a lot of it and a lot of the success that we’ve had is creating products that we would consume. And doing so in an environment that we would want to be a part of ourselves and so it’s really about creating spaces and products and doing it all with service that feels very much like today and it feels very much like a snapshot of what the future is going to look like. So we design every shop differently. They are funky and fresh. Our employees, our tribe members, have a ton of style and personality, that’s what we hire for. We have loud music that feels like you are walking into sometimes a nightclub but the idea is just incredibly high energy and we just have a culture of positivity where no matter what happened to you positively or negatively before you walk into our pizza shops you shed that. And so you are just enjoying whether it be for 10 minutes or an hour, enjoying taking in right all of these things that we created a visual and physical and having a different kind of experience that maybe you haven’t had before, especially in a pizza shop or with a food experience.
Ashley: And so I know you kind of referenced it earlier, but you guys do have this thing going on with tattoos right where you offer your employees tattoos.
Michael: We do, yeah. When we opened up our first shop it was a few months in. One of our tribe members came to me and asked if he could get the ampersand which is our symbol and our brand is &pizza and the ampersand is our sort of iconic symbol that we all rally behind. And you will see in our shop. And it was kind of awesome because this was somebody who definitely had an emotional connection to the brand right, loved the look of it, but more importantly loved what it stood for. And so ever since that time we’ve been “having casting calls” where we send out an email to all of our tribe members, offering for anyone that wants to get the ampersand tattooed on them, that we would pay for it. And so now we have over 75 tribe members that have the ampersand tattooed on them and we’ve created a bit of a movement. I think one of the things that makes the ampersand really special is that given the political environment and given where things are, this is symbol that stands for diversity inclusion, unifying people as much as it stands for our brand symbol. And so it’s something that people can whether they come to us for a few months or a year or several years, by getting this tattooed on them, definitely means something personal to each and every person and also stands for something that’s really cool and heartfelt. So we are really excited about that. We’ve also ironically had 20 of our customers we call our guests get the ampersand tattooed on them as well.
Ashley: That’s awesome. That really is awesome. And kind of to go off a little bit – you are talking about creating this environment and moving forward and I know you’ve been a really big advocate for fair minimum wages. So share with us a little bit about why that’s so important to you and what kind of impact it’s had on your company.
Michael: I think it’s had a huge impact. I mean for us culture is something that’s both internal and external. In paying people a little bit more, taking care of our tribe, and doing right by our people is a part of the culture that we’ve created. And I can tell you that not only is it the right thing to do but it’s also good for business. I mean as we’ve increased wages, we’ve seen higher productivity and more ownership of our shops and of our business and some of our tribes. If we’ve had more of our labor force that’s converted from part time and hourly to full time and hourly and eventually salary just as a result of being bought in and having that trust that we are going to do the right thing. And I think oftentimes in the restaurant industry in particular, especially in limited service or QSR there’s been a fractured trust between employee and ownership. And we are really trying to break down those barriers and say listen, you don’t have to give us anything more, just give us your time and over time trust us and we are going to do our best to develop you both professionally and personally. And paying people more is a great way to set the tone that I am going to start this relationship off on the right foot and compensate people in a healthy way. In addition to that, you are taking care of the people that are ultimately taking care of your customers that we call our guests. And so really it’s simple but critical concept –allow your staff to thrive and your company will thrive.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And so you are definitely doing things outside the box and taking some risk. So I am curious what have been the best lesson whether from a success or a failure that you’ve learned since opening your doors in 2012?
Michael: Well, I came from the advertising business and I actually have an advertising agency in New York called JWALK. It’s a phenomenal agency and we do incredible work for our customers in a multitude of industries. But even on the service side of the business I always wanted to get into a product and in pizza and this concept was my first foray into that. And I think I was a bit ignorant in terms of the amount of complexity right in the restaurant business but also the importance of the people. Like this is a very human business and it’s important that you do everything that you can in your power to create a culture where those people feel respected and they feel appreciated and they feel engaged. And so ever since I sort of opened my eyes to what makes this industry tick and sort of applied different philosophy to it, the biggest lesson learned has been continue to invest in your people right, double down – those are the folks that are day in and day out right touching, interacting with your customers. And they can change a business that is commodity based to something that’s real and own-able and something that you can take to the bank and not just financially but in terms of sustainability being able to protect your business and make sure that whether you are there or not their customers are getting an incredible experience that cannot be replicated by going into restaurant or retailer X, Y, and Z
Ashley: Excellent. And finally, what retailers are inspiring you right now and why?”
Michael: It’s a lot of independence. There’s a ton of popups in Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York where we are anchoring our business and it’s really the little guys and we call them little giants, but it’s the folks that have a true sense of purpose and passion right, that are getting into the business not just because of the money that it can make but because there’s something inside them that tells them I need to show the world or show this small niche or show my community or my neighborhood like why this is so important. And those are the, in my opinion the retailers that are curating these experiences whether they are popup or small spaces that are so special and warm and they are truly a reflection of the proprietors themselves, and that’s really the stuff that’s motivating me. A good example of that is one of the – for Sneakers heads there is a retail concept called KITH out in New York and I think they just do a fantastic job of really curating that Sneaker head culture, but doing so in a way that you can feel right the owners of the business are really you know they’ve left their imprint on that retail experience.
Ashley: I have to check them out now. And those are all the questions I have for you today. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and definitely look forward to hear more from you this May at Knowledge@Wharton and Momentum’s Retail East Executive Summit in New York City. So, thank you Michael.
Michael: Of course Ashley, I am looking forward to it and thank you all for listening.