Toppers Pizza Founder Scott Gittrich shares the valuable lessons learned during the early days of launching his now-successful franchise concept.
Scott Gittrich can’t remember the first pizza he delivered as a driver for Domino’s Pizza in 1984, but he does remember that it was the beginning of a life-long love affair.
“At that moment, when I started the job, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is it. This is my gig. I’m going to be in the restaurant and pizza business,’” Gittrich recalls.
He’s a man of his word. Gittrich and his wife skimped and saved as he worked his way up the Domino’s ranks, often being forced to endure long periods of time without those basic luxuries we often take for granted—like a car or refrigerator. After saving up nearly $30,000, he walked to a bank, applied for a loan and took a deep breath. Those tough times had culminated into this single moment—Gittrich took a chance and opened his first Toppers Pizza in 1991 in Champaign, Illinois.
Gittrich was 21 then. Now, with a pizza chain of his own in 76 locations and counting, he hasn’t lost an ounce of passion for the business. During the past 31 years, he’s learned a thing or two about the good and the bad; what works and what doesn’t work; and the difference between a mediocre business and one that truly shines without sacrifice. So, when Gittrich lays down some nuggets of wisdom, you listen. He’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about.
“Unless you’re lying in bed with your eyes wide open, totally scared shitless, you’re probably not doing it right.”
This has been Gittrich’s guiding rule for decades. You better believe him when he says that things weren’t always easy during Toppers’ most formative years, but it was the rough moments that became his fuel.
“Things were tough, and there were moments where I constantly worried about what I got myself into. Those were the days that we had zero financial margins for error, and we were always hovering right by business’ death door,” Gittrich said. “But at the same time, that’s the thrilling part. Owning a business will always be anxiety-ridden. That’s my driving force. It’s why entrepreneurship works. Those moments when you’re holding on for dear life turn into energy, they scare you and they motivate you.”
Since then, Gittrich has had more rewarding, exciting and exhilarating moments than he can count. Very clearly, he remembers one instance in particular—a single day in 2005 that completely changed the trajectory of his business forever. It started out as a day like any other, filled with too many meetings, too many phone calls and too many interviews. He was meeting with and looking to hire an ad agency, and one man starting throwing very pointed questions his way.
“He started asking what our target demographic is, and I immediately answered that we have two: 18 to 34 year olds and 35 to 55 year olds. The man responded, ‘So…basically everyone?’ He then asked me to tap into my heart of hearts and tell him who I really thought our customer was. I knew the answer: millennials.”
Admitting this out loud made Gittrich feel lousy. He thought the 20-something allure was a played-out niche. But the man he talked to that day knew better—Toppers was on to something big.
Then the guy told him this: “Think about it, this is a prized demographic. People pay millions of dollars to be relevant to 20-somethings. And you accidentally built this brand that resonates with people just because of who you are and how you’ve spoken. There’s not a pizza place out there like that.”
Everyone always jokes about having that “A-ha!” moment, but this event truly left a mark on Gittrich. In an industry filled with tough pizza competition, Gittrich had first set out to be just one percent better than the other guy—the Pizza Huts and Domino’s of the world. But that day, he realized that his company had not gotten to where they are by simply being better in a prize fight. He had accidentally built this distinctive brand that’s favored by a very important demographic just by being himself—and it was time to embrace that.
“That moment is exhilarating even today. It was an incredible lesson that if you remain true to yourself, things just organically embed themselves,” Gittrich said. “You don’t really see it happen, until you look back and there it is already staring you in the face. It was like ‘Holy shit! This is huge! When did this happen! This really is going to work!’”
Toppers is a company that is what it is. And its people will act how they want to act. That rare authenticity is the lifeblood of Gittrich’s company, and it has put them at the leading edge of the pizza world.
“If you watch us and Pizza Hut, one of the biggest companies in the food industry, you’ll notice that they’re playing not to lose. They’re afraid, and they’re only focused on achieving those next quarterly numbers. And here we are. We get to play with reckless abandon—like there’s nothing to lose. We’re fluid. We’re just doing our thing. We’re out there, hovering above the earth. It’s a blast.”
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