“The grass is greener” is an oft-used, tongue-in-cheek idiom to describe those who are not satisfied with their situation and leave to pursue something better – not necessarily realizing that their situation was actually better to begin with.
That expression is now being used within the pizza industry. Those who entered the business during the boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, inspired by the fun and excitement of the space but ultimately left in search of greener pastures, are now getting back in the pizza biz. Toppers Pizza, a fast-growing better pizza franchise, has recently reeled in some big fish with backgrounds at corporate chains, and they all have one thing in common—each of these franchisees shares a background in pizza, then a stint in another industry, then they came back to pizza by joining Toppers.
So what brings these pizza veterans back to the industry? Toppers Pizza founder, president and passionate pizza purist Scott Gittrich says it’s all about the nostalgia.
“At Toppers, we respect the art of the perfect pizza, and so do our customers. We’re committed to using real, 100 percent Wisconsin cheese and quality toppings – and we don’t charge our customers for every single topping. We respect the pizza and make it fun. Those corporate chains are about making Wall Street happy. Toppers are about putting our franchisees and our customers first – and that’s what is bringing people back to pizza,” said Gittrich.
In the last year, Toppers has made great strides in making its product and its franchise offering attractive to the big former pizza guys – and it’s paying off. Toppers has placed emphasis on improving its product pricing, operations and its technology, so it comes as no surprise that the brand has captured the attention of major multi-unit franchisees like Todd Geatches and Mike McLaughlin, who recently signed multi-unit agreements with Toppers to diversify their portfolios.
In the ‘90s, Geatches worked as a district manager for Papa John’s in the Denver, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque and Dallas markets. McLaughlin began his career at Domino’s, working there for three years before joining Papa John’s as a district manager, where he stayed for 12 years. Both lost their passion for the business when the corporate chains lost sight of the fun behind pizza—the foundation of what inspired them in the first place. Geatches went after tacos with Taco Johns and Mike went the burger route with Five Guys. However, they still had pizza sauce coursing through their veins—and are now tossing themselves back in the game.
Rocky Top Management, led by Geatches and Clayton Hartman, will open 13 Toppers units in Colorado and Wyoming over the next six years, in addition to its Taco John’s locations.
“When we decided to diversify and get back into pizza, we researched several different chains: Papa John’s, Jet’s Pizza, Marco’s Pizza and Toppers Pizza. But what ultimately stood out was Toppers. Scott Gittrich and the rest of the corporate team have figured out a way to target millennials, which is invaluable in the restaurant industry,” said Geatches. “Of course, the quality of the brand’s product was a huge factor, too. More than anything, we wanted to fall back in love with pizza and get involved with a brand that was less corporate, and more passionate and entrepreneurial.”
Both Geatches and McLaughlin were inspired by the Toppers Pizza culture, with a corporate team consisting of five former Domino’s team members who left during that same period in the late ‘90s. Gittrich and his team have been building Toppers on a foundation of what pizza used to be like since Gittrich gave up a high-level job at Domino’s to go try and reignite the spark. It was his passion, and the brand’s culture, that lured Toppers’ chief financial officer Kendall Richmond (a former Domino’s franchisee), vice president of marketing Scott Iversen (a former Domino’s manager), as well as current franchisees Wayne Byers and Bill Stayduhar, who left Domino’s to follow Gittrich and his vision, to get back into pizza with Toppers.
This “boomerang pizza” trend isn’t just coming from new franchisees; Toppers’ existing franchisees continue to sign agreements for additional locations. Bill Stayduhar, who owns three locations in the Charlotte market, recently signed an area agreement to open six more. He started at Domino’s in the early ‘80s, working his way up from being a driver to a director of operations, then a franchise owner. He met Gittrich and made the leap to Toppers in 1997 – and never looked back.
“Back in 1997, I joined Toppers because our recipes, our pizzas and our branding are just phenomenal. When I opened my first location in Charlotte, I heard more compliments than I had in my 14 years at Domino’s combined,” said Stayduhar. “I’ve watched firsthand how the brand has grown to more than 70 locations and the food quality has remained the same as we’ve continued to grow. Our customers order Toppers Pizza because they love the product. Domino’s and Papa John’s customers eat their food because they got a coupon. That’s a huge differentiator.”
On the heels of this incredible momentum, Toppers Pizza is showing no signs of slowing. The brand is currently gaining interest from dozens of restaurateurs with a background in pizza who are reaching a point in life where they are longing for those fun days from the ‘80s and ‘90s—and want to join the movement. It also doesn’t hurt that the pizza industry continues to be hot. According to data from Pizza Industry Analysis, pizza sales are on pace to push the $45 million mark this year in the U.S. alone, which is a 16.9 percent increase from 2015 – and this rapidly growing demand is expected to keep climbing.
“What makes me most proud of the brand we’ve built is our commitment to integrity – whether that’s in the product we deliver to our customers or in the types of franchisees we recruit to help us grow,” said Gittrich. “At the end of the day, our focus is, and always will be, on providing the best pizza – and showing the corporate chains how to do pizza right.”