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&pizza is a thriving fast-casual pizza shop that marches to the beat of its own drum. It designs its restaurants to reflect their local communities. Its employees get the company’s signature ampersand logo tattooed on themselves. It hosts free weddings in its shops every Pi Day (3/14).

The beating heart of this 35-unit brand is cofounder and CEO Michael Lastoria. A former advertising professional, Lastoria has carefully constructed a brand and culture that represent far more than its signature pizza options.

“[Customers are] very connected to the humanity. They’re connected to the symbol. They’re connected to who we are,” Lastoria says. “People more and more are looking for that versus something that’s more vanilla or more generic. People want your weirdness. Brands need to be fearlessly weird. You can no longer just do something a little different or a little better than what someone else is doing. You need to bring way more than that, because things are changing rapidly.”

Lastoria’s efforts are clearly paying off. In QSR’s recent Reader’s Choice Awards, he was ranked as the third-most respected fast-casual leader, behind only Jersey Mike’s Peter Cancro and Chipotle’s Brian Niccol. In addition, &pizza was named the third-most admired fast-casual brand and second-best brand for overall experience.

In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Lastoria explains how he’s rethinking the fast-casual narrative—and inviting other entrepreneurs to steal from his playbook.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Pizza, Story, &pizza