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Top That! Pizza offers quicker service with fast-cooking ovens

Featuring a simple, streamlined open kitchen design centered on fast-cooking impingement ovens and a lavish display of toppings, a new build-your-own pizza concept in Tulsa, Okla., is drawing lunchtime crowds.

Top That! Pizza, the weeks-old startup by husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jeff and Lori Walderich, promises pizza made the way you want it, baked to order in three minutes or less. Customers walk up to a service counter and pick the toppings, sauce and crust they want as they would choose the ingredients for a sub sandwich or burrito in those types of restaurants. A nine-inch regular pizza is priced at $5.99, a six-inch kids’ pizza is priced at $2.99.

The key to the eatery’s quick service is a pair of impingement ovens that bake rapidly with jets of hot air.

“I don’t think we would have done this concept if it we had not discovered this fast-cooking oven,” said Lori Walderich. A pizza is out of the oven in about the time it takes patrons to fill soft drinks and pick up napkins, she said.

Compared to trendy artisan pizza concepts, Top That! Pizza has much quicker service, lower prices and a store that is far simpler to run and less costly to develop, the couple contends. Viewed against existing quick pizza options, it offers a fresher, better tasting, more customizable product, they say.

“The other choices for getting pizza in less than 10 minutes are from a buffet, by the slice or from a frozen pre-made product that really isn’t good,” said Walderich.

The Walderichs, owners of a Tulsa restaurant marketing company called IdeaStudio, offer their patrons dozens of toppings to choose from, arrayed behind the service counter in a make-table that was left by the former occupant of the space, a Quiznos franchisee.

“We are giving people another option that they had not had before, which is to go to a pizza place with the same type of format as a Subway or Quiznos or Qdoba or Chipotle, and for the first time be able to see and choose any of those ingredients in any combination at one single price,” Walderich said.

They have a choice of three crusts, Italian White, Hearty Multigrain and Honey Wheat, nine sauces, ranging from Sweet Roma Red to Angry Alfredo, more than 30 vegetable and meat toppings and six cheeses. Add to that eight signature pies like Aloha Canada, Paso Chicken Pesto and Zorba the Veggie, each priced at $5.99 like the top-your-own items.

A relatively low startup cost, particularly for conversions, is another selling point. The estimated cost of a Top That! Pizza store ranges between $146,000 for a sandwich shop conversion and $350,000 for a “white box,” or unfinished space, in an inline location of 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. A sandwich shop conversion can be completed in four to six weeks.

At the Tulsa flagship store, the back-of-the-house setup includes a dough press, three-compartment sink, shelving and work space for vegetable prep. The previous tenant also left a walk-in cooler and walk-in freezer, which are handy, but not essential for the concept, Walderich said.

“The majority of the back was left alone,” said Walderich. “It was already the layout we needed.”

With Beautiful Brands International, also of Tulsa, as their franchise sales representative, the Walderichs are launching a national and international franchising program.

“We went to the pizza expo last year and it seemed the discussion was about bigger and bigger pizzas and wood-fired ovens,” said Walderich. “We kind of went in the opposite direction and focused more on what the customer really wants. Everyone else was zigging but we decided to zag.”

James Scarpa is a contributor to Nation's Restaurant News. E-mail editor Sarah E. Lockyer at [email protected].

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