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Creativity runs wild at &pizza, and it starts with the name; the ampersand is trademarked and the brand is pronounced “and pizza.” In the stores, the creativity extends to the pizza—and then some.
&pizza cofounder Michael Lastoria says he has a passion for building up new ideas from scratch, and he wanted to apply that to the pizza category with “something fun and progressive.”
A love of food led Lastoria, who has a background in advertising, to originally open a full-service restaurant in New York City. But when he and cofounder Steve Salis decided to create a pizza concept, they headed to Washington, D.C.
“One of the things you want to do when you start any business is give yourself the best chance of succeeding,” Lastoria says. “I took a trip to D.C. and was blown away at how emerging it was both culturally and economically. It was absolutely the right city to launch &pizza.”
He says each &pizza shop is uniquely created to reflect the people and the culture of its neighborhood. “We have a lot of fun designing stores and looking for whatever makes each neighborhood iconic that we can use to pay homage to that neighborhood,” Lastoria says.
But while localized stores are of crucial importance to the &pizza brand, the No. 1 goal is what Lastoria calls “crave-ability.”
“It’s all about the ingredients you put in,” he says. “If people don’t crave your product, you won’t be in the pizza business long. We’re always creating and curating ingredients with very distinct flavor profiles.”
COFOUNDERS: Michael Lastoria and Steve Salis
HQ: Washington, D.C.
YEAR STARTED: 2012
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 13
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Some characteristics of &pizza pies are constant, like size. Each pizza is about 17.5 inches long and 6 inches wide. Lastoria says they wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Pricing is simple, too, with each costing $8.86 pre-tax, regardless of whether customers choose signature pizzas or design their own.
About 70 percent of &pizza guests pick and choose ingredients, and the rest order signature offerings. The Maverick with tomato sauce, Mozzarella, salami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, oregano oil, and Parmesan Reggiano is a top-selling signature pizza, as is the Farmer’s Daughter with spicy tomato sauce, spinach, Mozzarella, Italian sausage, eggs, red pepper chili oil, and Parmesan Reggiano.
“Guests generally order a signature pizza on their first visit and then slowly customize that signature pizza on future visits, so that by about the fourth visit, they have it exactly the way they want it,” Lastoria says. He adds that the menu creation involved many food-focused people with ties to the brand, which explains the nontraditional offerings.
Some of the more uncommon toppings and sauces include red chickpea purée, falafel crumbles, local mushrooms, vegan “beef” crumbles, and premium shrimp. Guests can choose traditional, gluten-free, or ancient grains dough.
“Initially in 2012, less than 10 percent of our customers opted for ancient grains. Now it’s 40 percent,” Lastoria says. “By the end of the year, it will be more than half.”
After their pizza is cooked, guests can have “finishes” added. These include fresh herbs and raw vegetables like basil leaves, arugula, cherry tomatoes, and pickled red onions, as well as sauces like fig marsala and tzatziki yogurt.
With the array of choices available, an &pizza pie can be as healthy as a guest wants it to be, and Lastoria says the wellness movement has been at the forefront for the brand, which offers vegetarian, gluten-free, and vegan options.
Customer demand also led to the addition of signature salads. These include the Wilma Jean with seasonal greens, fresh Mozzarella, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, chicken, bacon, olives, and tomato-oregano vinaigrette, as well as the vegetarian Grecian Market with seasonal greens, broccoli, spicy chickpeas, falafel, roasted peppers, Feta, olives, and vinaigrette.
Lastoria says the salads were designed to be as exceptional as the pizza. That quality commitment also extends to proprietary offerings like &soda, &wine, and &cheese, a house-made Mozzarella.
“We found it is more cost-effective to make our own cheese than to purchase it,” Lastoria says. “You have to be creative when you have a pricing model like ours.”
He says expansion of the &pizza concept will inevitably lead to price breaks and allow for the purchase of even higher-quality ingredients. As for the direction and pace of that expansion, Lastoria says the company wants to grow smart.
“We like to call ourselves a collective rather than a chain, given how we think about growth,” Lastoria says, adding that &pizza does not plan to franchise. “We want to control experiences and create a cultural movement in our pizza shops.”
In February 2015, &pizza received a $10 million investment that Lastoria says allows the brand to expand its reach. All &pizza locations are currently in and around the greater D.C. area, but Lastoria says expansion to other markets is in the works.
“We want to preach the &pizza gospel throughout the nation’s capital and to other key markets,” he says. “We feel this is just the beginning.”