Around five years ago, Toppers Pizza CEO Scott Gittrich knew the brand had to make a change.
“We realized that we had kind of fallen into a trap in the pizza segment of following the discounters, and we made a hard but correct choice to separate ourselves and really commit ourselves to our position as the better but more expensive pizza place—that crave-worthy [quick-service restaurant] pizza,” Gittrich says.
The decision appears to be the right one, as Great Plains Capital recently made a long-term minority equity investment in the 70-plus-unit pizza chain. The financial fuel comes amid Toppers’ 30th anniversary and 13 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.
These strong sales numbers are likely part of what drew Great Plains into Toppers’ orbit. Gittrich says the investment will provide greater financial resources and business expertise to improve operations and accelerate the chain’s unit growth.
This means investments in personnel, leadership, and engineers as the brand focuses more on technology and franchise development. Franchise leads continue to come month after month, Gittrich says, adding Toppers will make some major investments into its systems and learning portals to support franchisees during onboarding. The company is also ready to step on the gas pedal with kitchen redesigns.
The CEO says two more Toppers stores will pop up this year. Around 12 restaurants are slated to open next year, and 20 to 30 in 2023 and 2024. The majority of growth will stay close to the chain’s current markets, but the company will likely establish a presence in some new spots with the help of multi-unit operators.
Gittrich notes that Toppers has typically found franchise success with those who are driven to run a business, including those that haven’t operated a restaurant before. Around 35 percent of stores are corporately owned, but that percentage will likely go down over the next few years as the brand focuses on franchise expansion.
Toppers will open three to four company stores annually over the next few years—a gradual and strategic plan implemented four years ago. Gittrich says it was part of a concerted effort to brand the company as a quality provider in quick-service pizza and to also increase AUV.
The method has proven worthwhile as stores are now earning more than $1.1 million on average.
“We’ve been single-minded about it,” Gittrich says. “We made a commitment that our number one priority was to drive volume through customer satisfaction to all the restaurants and create the most successful restaurant concept for our franchisees.”
“The whole thing is based on driving value for franchisees to be able to get a great return on their investment,” he adds. “Do that and then the rest will take care of itself. You have a successful restaurant concept that you can open up in different places and serve customers, well, then the franchisees will find you.”
Moving forward, Gittrich feels confident about Toppers’ unique menu and small footprint that boasts a 75 percent digital sales mix. To date, 72 percent of the brand’s sales come from menu items that are differentiated from the typical quick-service pizza segment. Think mac and cheese pizza, monkey bread, and plant-based pizza.
The restaurant business has been reset, Gittrich says. With so many businesses closing, the executive believes there’s major opportunities for brands to reemerge with quick, convenient, technology-driven products and variety. That makes it perfect timing for Toppers to open new locations.
“We are in an environment where every restaurant in one form or another is finding their way to a small footprint,” the CEO says. “They’re finding their way to technology. They’re finding their way to delivery. They’re finding their way to high quality, plant based, made from scratch. That’s us. That’s our DNA.”
During the early weeks of COVID, when consumers made a quick and hard pivot to off-premises, pizza concepts thrived because of the food’s familiarity, portability, and value proposition. Toppers was one of the beneficiaries, with same-store sales rising 20 percent in 2020. Additionally, the brand leveraged momentum to accelerate its digital offerings. This summer, the brand launched a new loyalty program called “The Upper Crust Society.” Members earn one point for every dollar spent. For every 100 points, customers will receive a $10 reward toward any menu item.
However, Gittrich acknowledges that his confidence wasn’t as high in the early beginning stages of COVID.
“There was that three weeks right at the beginning where we all thought, is this the end?” Gittrich says. “And certainly, from a business standpoint, our sales just fell off a cliff there for about three weeks or so.”
But Toppers stayed open and delivered to people throughout the worst days of the pandemic. There were challenges around every corner, but the brand pushed through, adding curbside pickup and contactless delivery early-on to meet consumers where it was most convenient.
Toppers had always prided itself on being open longer than anyone in the business, until 2 or 3 a.m. Gittrich says. And he didn’t want that commitment to change even as the pandemic shifted everyday life. Roughly 70 percent of off-premises sales come through the company’s first-party delivery program.
“We kept the commitment to our hours and our customers,” Gittrich says. “We continued to maintain our cadence of menu innovation, and we think those things paid off.”
Because of these choices, the CEO says customers see Toppers as a consistent place compared to other chains. As the brand accelerates its presence across the country, Gittrich is confident that the U.S. will eventually have a total of 3,000 Toppers stores coast to coast.
“We believe that quality and variety in [quick-service] pizza is lacking,” Gittrich says. “We’re proud to have differentiated ourselves: made from scratch food, innovative categories, with all of the great service and technology that our industry is known for.