ZaLat Pizza founder Khanh Nguyen was no stranger to innovation when he entered the restaurant industry. Before ZaLat, Nguyen had practiced law for a number of years, then decided to pursue a tech concept with his brother, eventually growing it to a national scale and selling the company. In 2011, Nguyen wanted to start another company, thinking it would be based in technology.
“I had the software concept all ready to go, and then sat down to try to make it happen. But for some reason, my brain just wasn’t interested in it,” Nguyen says.
While he stayed at home working on his software concept, he began to pick up family chores, volunteering to cook family dinners. Nguyen took a liking to cooking, spending entire days working on recipes he found online. His newfound zest for food encouraged him to pursue food over technology, and in 2012, Nguyen opened his own pho restaurant. The idea to start his own pizza brand came a little later, when a pizza restaurant opened next door.
“To be honest, their pizza just wasn’t very good,” Nguyen says. “My thought was, hey, if you’re doing a small pizza shop, you’ve got to beat the chains at least.”
Nguyen decided that if that pizza restaurant didn’t make it, he would give it a shot. And when it closed about nine months after opening, Nguyen had his chance. Though he took over the lease in December 2014, the ZaLat team spent months perfecting pizza recipes before opening. Nguyen was determined to have proper grease levels and product taste—even going so far as to create a blind taste test for new cheeses. In May 2015, ZaLat finally opened its doors.
While 40 percent of its sales come from the classic pepperoni pizza, ZaLat’s menu consists of specialties like the Elote Pizza, which consists of corn, lemon pepper reduction, parmesan cheese, cilantro garnish, and Valentina sauce, as well as the Pho Shizzle, which consists of chicken, red bell peppers, caramelized red onions, and herbs, topped with a drizzle of hoisin sauce and sriracha.
Each of the specialty pizzas takes months to develop. Nguyen says the main reason ZaLat puts so much care in its flavor development is because the company aims to have its specialty pizzas as a permanent fixture rather than a limited-time offer.
FOUNDER: Khanh Nguyen
YEAR STARTED: 2015
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 8
FRANCHISED UNITS: 0
“You get into this horrible cycle of needing to come up with new products so that the marketing folks can market some LTO to drive sales,” Nguyen says. “Every three months you introduce some new product just for a gimmick to layer onto that. To me, that’s how you lose your way.”
But the brand isn’t completely against promotions, offering discounted pizza deals for customers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also started a promotional campaign called “Reaper Roulette,” where customers can pay $2.50 to spice up an undisclosed slice of pizza with hot sauce. Nguyen says the promotion has gotten a lot of traction on social media, and he hopes to make it a permanent offering.
Along with innovative flavors, ZaLat aims to set itself apart within its company culture. Because Nguyen came to the industry with a background in technology and law, he noticed restaurants’ high turnover rate and the way its labor force was treated poorly. Nguyen says he knew he had to create a healthy work culture for his employees (who he calls his zealots), especially since the late-night restaurant sometimes keeps them until four in the morning.
“We’re trying to think of them not as a fungible, disposable, replaceable workforce. We want everybody to stay around with us for a career,” Nguyen says. “If you’re constantly working with brand-new people, the quality is just not going to be there versus somebody who’s doing it for years.”
Besides health benefits and a 401(k) for all employees, ZaLat has implemented other unique benefits, including a company comic book for new employees and longevity bracelets that signify a length of employment. The company even offers a free corporate tattoo of their company logo to employees who have worked for the company for at least a year. Nguyen estimates that there are around 15 employees waiting to get a ZaLat tattoo once pandemic restrictions ease.
Beyond internal efforts to ensure longevity, Nguyen plans to support ZaLat with the brand’s expansion strategy. ZaLat has eight locations spread throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with the goal of finishing out the year with 12 total units. Next year, Nguyen hopes to open anywhere between nine and 12 units. He’s looking to prove the brand in Houston and Austin before expanding beyond Texas.
Part of crafting this controlled approach to national success means that ZaLat doesn’t intend to franchise anytime soon. “Basically you’re taking any kind of difficulty out of the preparation process to be able to get your labor down as low as possible by paying as little as possible for your workers,” Nguyen says. “We’re built differently than that.”
With expansion, Nguyen wants ZaLat to keep the same quality that established the brand. He says he wants ZaLat to become the best-tasting pizza in the world, without compromising its hallmark taste.
“Our romantic mission that we’re on,” Nguyen says, “is to become a national multi-unit player that never dumbed down its product.”