Tony Gemignani closed his esteemed International Pizza School last summer, but he hasn’t given up on teaching the craft of pizza making. He now focuses on training the restaurant operators who are helping expand his fast-casual pizza concept Slice House nationwide.
Owning 30 restaurants, including Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Capo’s, and Toscano Brothers in San Francisco, as well as Pizza Rock in Las Vegas, Gemignani has been operating multiple pizzerias in California and Nevada for years. Franchising at this level is a relatively new venture.
The 13-time World Pizza Champion first opened Slice House by Tony Gemignani in 2010 next to his flagship restaurant, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, in San Francisco’s North Beach district.
“You could say Slice House was everything people didn’t like about Tony’s, which was a full-service restaurant with long wait times,” Gemignani says. “It wasn’t convenient, it wasn’t fast, and it didn’t sell by the slice, so I listened to my customers and opened a fast casual right next to it.”
Founders: Tony Gemignani, George Karpaty, Trevor Hewitt, and Bill Ginsburg
Headquarters: San Francisco
Year Started: 2021 as franchisor entity
Annual Sales: NA
Total Units: 43 as a franchise company, 60 including licensed units at stadiums and casinos
Franchised Units: 42 (8 open and 34 in development)
Slice House gradually expanded over the next decade. A second restaurant opened in 2016 in Walnut Creek, California. It now serves as the brand’s corporate headquarters. Gemignani licensed three additional brick-and-mortar spots in the state and opened several licensed units in casinos. He also launched a concessions business, selling pizza by the slice in major league sports stadiums in San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Gemignani didn’t consider franchising until 2020 after the concept proved to be “almost COVID-proof.” Like many pizza brands, a longstanding focus on takeout and delivery carried it through pandemic-related disruptions. Slice House also benefited from an extensive menu that showcases multiple regional pizza styles, including New York, Detroit, California, Sicilian, and Grandma-style, which takes inspiration from home-cooked pies and features a distinctly thin crust.
“There’s been a renaissance of pizza styles over the past few years,” he says. “When you were bored with the same thing you always ordered during the pandemic, you could come to us and try something new, and it probably became your favorite pizza.”
Preparing the brand for expansion required some adjustments. The three licensed restaurants lacked a standardized design and equipment package. That meant Gemignani had to devise a franchise model that would preserve the brand’s scratch-made ethos while enabling consistent and easy execution.
“We have a variety of ingredients that are pretty unusual for a pizza chain,” he says. “You don’t see stuffed squash blossoms and purple potatoes from the typical franchise, so the question was, ‘How can I make this a little more franchise friendly, but at the same time, keep it where it’s house-made and using quality ingredients?’”
Slice House still offers the same selection of regional pizza variations, but the menu is easier to navigate from a customer’s perspective, he adds. Instead of having a set number of recipes listed under each style of pizza, every recipe is available in every style. Gemignani also expanded the menu with plant-based and gluten-free options as well as chef-inspired recipes that would help the brand stand out as an artisan pizzeria helmed by a culinary expert.
Slice House became a franchise entity in early 2021 and quickly got to work selling territories in target markets across California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas. The first franchised unit was slated to open this summer in Thousand Oaks, California. With one dough recipe and a single triple-stack electric oven for all of the various pizza styles, the store serves as a prototype for future restaurants. It also has an upgraded POS system, improved online ordering capabilities, and a larger footprint than the corporate store in Walnut Creek.
“That store in Walnut Creek does over $3 million in volume a year, and it’s 900 square feet,” Gemignani says. “That’s insane business for such a small space, so we made the footprint a bit bigger and the line longer and wider for franchisees.”
Slice House offers two franchise models. There’s a fast-casual model with limited seating, like the Thousand Oaks location. Those stores will range from 1,200 square feet up to 2,200 square feet. There’s also a roughly 500-square-foot kiosk model designed for stadiums and other high-foot-traffic locations. The initial investment ranges from a little over $400,000 to upward of $1.5 million depending on the model and location.
As of mid-July, Slice House had eight restaurants open—excluding its 17 licensed outlets in casinos and stadiums—plus 34 units in development and an additional four locations under contract. Gemignani puts the franchise’s total number of existing and planned units at just under 50 but expects that number could be closer to 75 by the end of the year.
The brand has seen a steady stream of interest from qualified operators. Several groups have bought multiple units in large territories, bringing experience with companies like Subway and Wingstop. Gemignani says Slice House will continue growing the pipeline at a rapid pace. He’s confident it will successfully tap into that demand without getting ahead of itself.
“It’s like lightning in a bottle,” he says. “We don’t want to grow too quickly and the infrastructure is really important to us. At the same time, we’ve been lucky enough to get some really experienced franchisees, and that makes everything a bit easier.”
Initial conversations with prospective operators always begin with the fact that they won’t pull ingredients out of the freezer and drop them into the fryer. They’ll make the dough in-house from scratch along with other items, like fresh pasta, dressings, sauces, and croutons.
That’s where Gemignani’s roots with the International School of Pizza come in handy. He closed the school last year to stop teaching potential competitors and ensure franchisees are given extensive hands-on training. They spend three weeks working at the Walnut Creek store and three weeks using their own equipment in their own restaurants. If more support is needed, one of the world’s leading pizza experts is just a phone call away.
“Even though it’s Slice House by Tony Gemignani, they’re running it, they’re owning their stores, and they have to believe in it,” he says. “I always bring them to North Beach so they can see the original location and understand the brand’s history. It’s a fast casual, so you try to make everything as tight as you can, but you also want to have that friendly service that you feel from a mom and pop. That’s something I really want our franchisees to understand.”