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Q&A: Scott Gittrich of Toppers Pizza

President and founder on the brand’s rowdy reputation and standing out in the pizza segment

It may not seem like the right time for Toppers Pizza to mount a franchise growth push with the credit market still tight for potential operators, but the 27-unit chain has always gone against the grain.

The Whitewater, Wis.-based brand has built a reputation not only for high-quality pizza, but for its irreverent marketing and its focus on the college student market. Its cheeky slogans include, “We come fast, no apologies,” and the tagline, “Spank your buds,” that is, taste buds.

However, its franchising plans are serious, and so is interest from potential operators, Scott Gittrich, founder and president, said. The chain received 110 franchise inquiries last year and more than 500 this year to date. Toppers’ goal is to have 100 stores open by 2013 and 500 by 2020.

“We’re more committed to the right kind of people and not screwing it up than we are to that 100 number,” he said. “The desire for a franchise concept that works is certainly out there.

Nation’s Restaurant News recently visited Toppers’ headquarters to ask Gittrich how dominating the 20-year-old demographic and striving for a superior-quality claim lays the groundwork for the chain’s expansion goals.

You’re looking to accelerate Toppers’ growth from 27 stores in 20 years to several hundred more in the next few years. Why is now the time to expand so rapidly?

We’ve grown the way we’ve grown because we were focused on opening restaurants that worked. Now it’s paying off big. We have a great earnings claim, and when people call on our franchisees to do their due diligence, they get the kinds of testimonials we like. You don’t get those kinds of testimonials by growing too fast. I’m glad to say I’m the stodgy founder who’s said, “We’re not going to screw this up by going too fast.”

So you’ve had time to figure out your ideal positioning and your core customer?

People are kicking to the curb the old, tired chains that have been the mainstays of the industry. When we show up to new markets, people get us and perceive us as different, fun and of a higher quality. We’re in that sweet spot like Five Guys, or smaller pizza chains that have distinguished themselves like the gourmet-pizza people or Pizza Patrón.

It’s often called a niche, but the only problem I have with that is “niche” sounds small. We methodically try to own that piece, but when we arrived at that place, it wasn’t because we got a bunch of consultants and asked, “Well, what do we want our position in the marketplace to be?” It was because the first few stores opened on college campuses and are all open till 3 a.m. or later. You call our stores and you get these funny recordings.

It was just who we were, and it gained this following. We realized later that if you can look good to 20-year-olds, you’re going to look good to everybody. That’s how people will perceive you.

As you grow, do you have to transition from stealing market share from your biggest competitors to guarding your own?

The pizza market is freaking huge, and all we need is to get a few people to fire Papa John’s, Domino’s and Pizza Hut, and we’ve got a high-volume store straightaway … It’s somewhat easier to be the little guy moving in on somebody else, but the fact is that you look at companies that have grown, they’re average unit volumes have as well, and that’s due to the strength of the brand. We have a similar graph: As we’ve grown units, our volumes have grown.

There’s no shortage of people kicking ass on college campuses, but what we’re doing is systematically owning that and frankly running it like a Papa John’s or a Domino’s would.

Pizza chains are discounting a lot, and value matters to your key demographic. How are you growing without fighting with them on price?

When we’re selling pizza for more, it’s not for $40 … Chipotle has had no trouble selling $10 burritos the past few years. It’s not that we don’t have a value proposition; it’s just that it’s different. It might be more indulgent and fun. We can come into a market, do something cool looking, and it’s believable … Competitors may rough up the edges and have hipper uniforms or whatever, but we think they can’t move in on that.

Are you recruiting operators who remind you of yourselves, or can you teach somebody with a different business mind-set the Toppers way of doing things?

It’s integral that we have people who are passionate in the stores, believe in what they’re doing and think that we’re something special. How do we think about this equation relative to franchise prospects? We have to be confident that this person can deliver this kind of experience in the stores. They’re fun, passionate places and they can talk smack in their marketing, but the franchisees don’t always look like our typical customer.

People see us and know that we’re open late and we’re rowdy. We don’t have to give a disclaimer. By the time I meet people and they’re in this room, they know that’s what the gig is, and that’s what they’ll be delivering.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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