On July 1st of 2017, Toppers Pizza opened a new restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming—one of the first in the market. By September 2nd, 2017, Toppers had opened four other units in Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, and Michigan.
That rapid slate of openings across states posed a unique challenge for the Toppers corporate team, who are known for providing a level of hands-on field support for new stores that is unmatched in the industry. New Toppers stores benefit from weeks of corporate-guided marketing and training before and after opening. This summer, the corporate team had to figure out how to put marketing and training specialists on the ground in five different states over just nine weeks.
Dylan McKay, Toppers’ field training specialist, said that the problem was solved largely through recruitment within the company.
“I got the timeframe for the new openings back in April, and I began recruiting team members to help with training,” said McKay. “For each store, we had trainers coming in from a number of different states, all prepared with training modules that we’d developed in advance.”
That within-the-ranks recruitment strategy requires a big commitment from trainers and from the many stores across markets who agree to contribute staff.
“We have at least 14 people come out from various locations to help with each new opening,” McKay said. “And we’ll stay out with the new franchisee to work on tech issues and other operational concerns for days, sometimes weeks after the opening.”
To entice the most ambitious trainers and persuade busy store managers to donate staff, McKay promises that trainers will return to their stores as more knowledgeable and capable team members than when they left.
“It can be an enlightening experience for trainers,” said McKay. “They’ll leave with insight into the corporate process and operational experience that they wouldn’t otherwise get. It can really be a huge benefit for both the trainer and their store.”
Even with a sizable team of dedicated trainers at each new location, McKay was still determined to personally provide support for each opening, even if he couldn’t physically attend each.
“I try to be on site for any new opening, but when I can’t be, the priority is still the same: we have to be available for the new franchisee, answering every question, addressing every problem no matter how small,” said McKay. “So, I check in with my trainers in each market every day, and I get on the phone with the franchisee when needed.”
McKay’s commitment to providing in-depth and personalized training for each new store has paid off. Not only are new-store staffs more prepared on day one, they’ve experienced first-hand the corporate team’s passion for the brand, which McKay believes is infectious.
“When we get feedback from new stores, 99.9 percent of the time they say it's the best training they’ve had,” said McKay. “Other stores give team members a bunch of reading material and close the door for a couple hours, but we’re working with the staff, showing them how everything is done and why it’s done that way. They can tell how much we care and how much we believe in the company, and it makes them excited to be a part of it.”
McKay’s team of trainers aren’t the only extra staff on hand for a new opening. Marketing personnel are on site for a full week before a new store’s opening, spreading the word and planning events. Jake Zdrojewski, a field marketing coordinator for Toppers, said this summer’s run of openings was, from a marketing perspective, the busiest time in Toppers’ history.
“It was a crazy time,” Zdrojewski said. “Very exciting, but very challenging. We have three field marketing coordinators, and usually we have all three of us on site for any new opening, but that wasn’t possible this summer.”
So, like McKay, Zdrojewski pulled team members from other areas of the company for help.
“We do a lot of local-store marketing for every market, so we know which stores are the best with marketing, and we know which team members are most excited about marketing,” Zdrojewski said. “We even have stores where team members are working part time while in school for marketing. So, I got in touch with people who we thought would be a good fit, and we built a marketing team for each new store opening.”
Zdrojewski built teams of qualified marketing staff to send out to each opening, but marketing strategies were in development for weeks before any team was deployed.
“There’s a lot of prior legwork for any new opening, but especially for a new franchisee,” said Zdrojewski. “We’ll start researching points of interest four or five weeks in advance so that the marketing team has a list of schools, businesses, and community hubs to hit.”
Once on site, much of the marketing team’s effort is dedicated to getting people in the door on day one. To that end, Toppers offers a massive incentive to drive first-day sales: one year of free food for the first 50 customers to arrive.
“The first-50 event is fantastic for building buzz around a new store,” said Zdrojewski. “And it’s a great way to prepare a new owner for a rush of business right off the bat. We’ll advertise first-50 events at bars, schools, hotels, businesses, everywhere we think we can find interest. That way, the brand is exposed to a diverse cross-section of each community.”
Because Zdrojewski, like McKay, was unable to personally attend each of the summer’s five openings, it was important to establish a line of communication not just during the openings, but also after.
“We leave every new owner with an action plan, and we make sure that they’re able to contact us,” Zdrojewski said. “But I’m also following up regularly to check in with each store and make sure their marketing plans are working for them.”
The approach to marketing and training for this summer’s openings will likely be the first run of a new model of field support for new openings moving forward. According to Mark Cairns, Toppers’ director of franchise development, the brand will continue expanding into new territories at an increasingly rapid clip.
“We’ve found an enormous demand for our product in every market we’ve tested,” said Cairns. “Even in the larger markets that have a lot of competition, Toppers stands out with our unique toppings, house pizzas and Topperstix, and we’re able to carve out a very lucrative corner of the segment. The more we can spread brand awareness, the larger that corner becomes.”
“We’re able to continue growing because our new stores have found their footing so quickly,” said Cairns. “Compared to other restaurants, new Toppers locations become operationally sound and able to build sales quickly, and that’s because we put so much work into preparing every new owner to run the business well.”