Former University of Wisconsin football player Jonathan Taylor is used to running through tackles for big gains on the field.
He’s now looking to run Toppers Pizza franchises and drive what he hopes will be big gains on the balance sheet.
Toppers Pizza, based in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and Taylor recently formed a partnership in which he will serve as the co-franchisee of four units in Madison, Wisconsin, including the one he went to as a student.
Taylor, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft, says he was attracted to Toppers’ quick, friendly, and consistent services. His favorite orders are boneless Parmesan Garlic Wings with Cinnamonstix or a Pepperoni Pizza with Cinnamonstix.
“I love that Toppers Pizza founder and president Scott Gittrich is a guy who wanted to do the impossible and go up against the big time pizza franchises such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s,” says Taylor in an email to QSR. “Everyone thought he was crazy, and I loved that he believed in himself. I have the same kind of mindset as Scott when it comes to doing whatever it takes to go against the big name and make a name for yourself. That's why I was driven towards becoming a co-franchise owner of Toppers Pizza.”
Taylor finished his career with 6,174 rushing yards, good for sixth-most in NCAA history. The former Wisconsin Badger is the first in NCAA history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in three seasons. He finished in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting three times and was a two-time recipient of the Doak Walker Award, which is given to the nation’s top collegiate running back.
Gittrich loves that Taylor is a competitor. He describes the athlete as an “all-in” type of person.
“We’re a Wisconsin company, he’s a Wisconsin celebrity,” Gittrich says. “He is such an incredible player. But the thing is, I had to think, OK, I’m putting a lot into this. He’s putting a lot into this. What if he has some terrible injury, and he never plays a day in the NFL? And I thought, no, he’s a celebrity in Madison and in Wisconsin right now. Half of our restaurants are in Wisconsin. We’re a Wisconsin pizza company. If his celebrity gets capped at Wisconsin, then we can still have a great partnership is the bottom line. And if he shoots the moon, then icing on the cake.”
Taylor says his first goal as a co-franchisee is to represent the brand respectfully and with the utmost dignity—as if he was representing his own family. The second is to spread “the good Toppers Pizza word” in terms of the service and quality food. He’s also seeking to lift the franchise to new heights.
He’s been in the stores, met employees, and participated in a virtual franchisee call.
“The experience was definitely mind-blowing as I had just finished another football season,” says Taylor, referring to his interactions with Toppers. “I recently finished a combine and was then on a business call with other franchise owners. I'm only 21, so the opportunity to be a franchisee with Toppers Pizza is humbling when you realize you're being presented with ownership in the franchise. It makes you want to go more in-depth and learn that much more.”
In his conversations with Gittrich, Taylor says the CEO’s belief in himself stood out. Similar to Gittrich’s vision of going against bigger pizza brands, Taylor had the same drive when he transitioned from a small high school in Salem, New Jersey, to Wisconsin’s football team. He says many thought he’d get lost in the depth chart, but he proved them wrong by becoming a two-time unanimous First-Team All-America selection.
Taylor says he believes his values of discipline and organization as a football player will translate to serving as a co-franchisee.
“As a franchisee, having a great amount of discipline is necessary to make sure you’re doing the right things to increase the success of the business,” he says. “To me, I want to represent the brand as well as I would represent my family. Organization is also just as important. I've always taken notes inside of football meetings and the same thing translates over to Toppers meetings with the team. I'm always wanting to learn more and make sure that I don't miss any details.”
The major partnership comes as restaurants continue to sort through the COVID-19 pandemic. Gittrich says Toppers was anxious at first when it wasn’t clear how restaurants would be affected. But he adds that delivery and carryout are in Toppers’ DNA, so the business is well-suited for the environment. Employees have also settled in; the brand hasn’t lost a manager at a company-owned store in the past eight weeks.
Gittrich says Toppers will come out of the pandemic in a strong position. He believes fewer restaurants will emerge, and there will be many opportunities for development and franchises.
In other words, Gittrich says Taylor made a solid investment.
“[The partnership is] a no-brainer for us because I just think he’s going to be a star,” Gittrich says.