I love introducing people to Toppers Pizza. I am regularly in a group or with a person who wants to know more about whom and what Toppers is: franchise prospects, magazine reporters, that big dude sitting next to me on the plane. One of the misconceptions that I run into over and over again is that Toppers restaurants are only “in college towns.”
Now, we do have Toppers stores in college towns, no doubt about it. But many people are surprised to learn that less than half of Toppers stores serve a college campus, and in the last few years, most of our new stores have opened in purely residential areas.
Why do people perceive us as a college town brand? There are two big reasons.
First, Toppers was born in a college town and grew up in college towns, just like many of you! Not all, but most, of our first 10 restaurants serviced a university area. That’s actually true of many well-known restaurant brands: Jimmy Johns, Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and dozens more. Just like those successful restaurants, as time has gone on and the Toppers brand has become more and more popular, who we are and where we go has evolved.
Back in the early 2000s, I hired a consultant to advise us on our growth. One of the first things he asked was why we didn’t have any stores in Milwaukee. He said going to Milwaukee was a no-brainer. The population was dense, the economy was good, and it would be easier and more cost effective to support those close stores than to spread them all over the Midwest.
Well, I told him that I was frankly unsure about opening stores in an urban or suburban setting, particularly because there weren’t many colleges there. I took his advice to heart though, and we soon had a pioneer franchisee set to open a store in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee.
My nervousness about opening in suburban Milwaukee didn’t last long. The sign went up about a month before the opening. The franchisee, John Kubisiak, had put his cell phone number on a notice that he taped to his front door, and his phone was blowing up with people calling him to ask when Toppers was opening. He called me about it. He told me that he was telling people that called him to come to the opening and that he would “hook them up” with some free food. He was worried about it because he had told dozens of people that and wasn’t keeping track of who was who!
We decided with him that day to give free food for a year to the first 50 people that came in on Grand Opening Day. He put that on the message on his cell phone and hung a banner outside the store.
People started lining up the day before the opening. On the big day, I arrived at the store about 9 a.m., a couple hours before opening time. The parking lot of the shopping center was packed and there was a massive line at the store that stretched about 110 people long, way beyond the first 50. We opened huge and that store was immediately one of our highest volume stores in the company. (We still open most of our stores with a “first 50” promotion and get lines the day before.)
Even then, I thought we might have accidentally captured lightning in a bottle, but over and over again we opened residential urban, suburban and small town stores to great success.
Yes, we have some monster college town stores, but now we specialize more on opening those killer residential stores. After all, even in Lincoln, Nebraska, most of the Toppers stores aren’t going to service a campus. So while we definitely built our brand initially in campus towns, we’ve settled into something quite a bit different today.
That brings me to the second big reason people think we are a “college town” brand: Our brand personality.
Much like the Jimmy Johns, Chipotles, and Buffalo Wild Wings of the world, we have embraced the youthful, energetic, and sometimes rowdier side of who we are. In our marketing, we proudly “target” 18 – to 34 year olds; that incredibly influential group of consumers that make or break many brands. Just like the previously mentioned brands, “targeting” 25 year olds doesn’t mean that only 25 year olds eat at Toppers! What it means is that we walk and talk like a 25 year old, and that resonates with that group as well as families like mine!
25 year olds demand authenticity, quality and connections.In restaurants, they expect food made right with good ingredients. They expect businesses to value their people and care for their communities.
Apple is a brand that works hard to connect to not only 25 year olds, but also to the 25 year old in all of us. Remember that awesome ad campaign they ran for so many years where they showed the cool Mac guy, and the dweeby PC guy? Dang it, I’m 52 years old and I definitely identify with the Mac guy. In fact, I’m typing this blog post on my Macbook just to prove it!
We are doing something similar. Toppers' authentic self has roots in youth and we embrace that image in part because it is distinctive in our competitive segment, and it sells! Customers love our brand because we let it rip. The big chains could never be us. We make our food from scratch, talk smack, and stay open late, and that is what 25 year olds expect of their pizza place. The beautiful thing is that customers of all ages are drawn to the fun Toppers brand and voice.
Toppers is successful today and growing like mad because we embrace our young and energetic heritage and voice. That voice is not limiting. In fact, it is the voice that is causing our brand to spread like wildfire across the United States.
Still a college kid at heart,