Scott Gittrich has never been comfortable being comfortable. The creative force behind Toppers Pizza, a Wisconsin-based franchise pizza chain that burst onto the scene more than 25 years ago and changed the pizza landscape forever, is practically vibrating at the possibilities inherent in a new calendar year.
It’s no surprise that the restaurant industry has faced their share of struggles in the last two years. But where many might be resigned to feeling helpless to market forces and evolving consumer preferences, Gittrich has always enjoyed playing the underdog role.
“Personally, I'm always excited whenever we can innovate, take smart risks, and go to the next level to win customers and beat the competition,” said Gittrich. “When you're consistently seeing the industry go up, you're more likely to rest on your laurels. When you take a couple punches, it's time to say, ‘Let's go,’ and try new things.”
New things are exactly what Gittrich and his team of seasoned veterans have in store for 2018. Without peeling back the curtain too much, the leader of the Toppers Pizza brand said the brand is venturing into at least one new product line that has received rave reviews in all tests so far. But, this is just the beginning of what the company has on tap innovation-wise.
“We are working on a campaign of LTO's and have a lot of exciting products in the innovation pipeline. Simultaneously, we are making the right kind of changes so that our menu is even easier to prepare for our team members. We'll be dabbling in new products that will hopefully kill some veto votes and extend into dayparts and help with incremental check increases and loyalty with customers,” said Gittrich.
Toppers Pizza is carrying momentum from another banner year for the brand. While the restaurant industry as a whole was down in 2017, Toppers Pizza continued to grow and had several stores turn in record sales years. The company opened 14 new locations during the year, including the first openings for multi-unit operators in Colorado, Wyoming and Virginia. Those groups of operators both come from backgrounds with other pizza brands, thus validating the direction Toppers is heading. The company also brought on franchisees to bring Toppers to new markets such as their first signing in Louisiana and to further saturate established states such as Minnesota where the company has more than 15 stores.
In 2017, Toppers also continued to enhance their digital platforms and increased online ordering to nearly 50 percent. The investment in technology, and the introduction of a brand new, cutting edge integrated technology platform, is another area where Gittrich is particularly excited.
“It's 2.5 years in the making. We're excited to get it out of the door and see how it performs. It's been a partnership between our IT staff, franchisees, and the software company to create the next generation of Toppers Pizza. There are infinite possibilities on how we'll be able to serve our customers for years to come. We'll have the capability to customize down to the individual. This keeps us on the front end of what restaurants are doing in an exciting segment where the pizza delivery segment leads the way on what restaurants do with their ecommerce sites,” he said.
However, the menu and the company’s technology aren’t the only parts of Toppers Pizza due for an increased innovation injection in 2018. Toppers is investing their marketing dollars in fighting competition on the front lines.
“We have some bold plans in marketing. We are decentralizing and really focusing on local decisions, local pricing and promotions. Guerilla marketing is going to get a big push. We're excited about the immediate changes over the next several months, particularly starting in the 2nd quarter with new creative coming out that recaptures the Toppers smack talking voice, getting back to our roots and calling out the big boys more specifically. We are going to quit messing around and punch them in the stomach - tell them who we are and what we’re all about,” said Gittrich.
The company will be doing that while doubling down on support for franchisees in the system. Toppers has a plan for continuing to enhance the resources available to local operators and to bulk up the structure to make sure the corporate team is fighting side-by-side with franchisees in the booming, competitive pizza segment.
“The brand is extremely strong. It's not like we're saying, let's reinvent ourselves. Because we have a brand that we believe in, everything comes back to our true north. Everything we innovate comes back to being true to our customers and to our values. The reason I broke off to create Toppers Pizza was to create innovative options beyond what was available at the other pizza places,” added Gittrich. “It's personally exciting to me.”