For much of his 32-year career in foodservice, Toppers Pizza franchisee Todd Geatches has been around pizza.

Starting as an Oliver’s Pizza franchisee just out of high school, Geatches later went to work as a district manager for Papa John’s as the brand grew from about 400 restaurants to more than 2,500. Later, Geatches founded Rocky Top Management Group, which now has nine Taco John’s locations in the greater Denver area.

His success with Taco John’s led Geatches back into the pizza arena, and specifically Toppers Pizza, whose quality product and passionate founder reignited his love for the category. Rocky Top has plans to open 13 Toppers locations over the next three years in Colorado and Wyoming, with more than a dozen stores planned through the end of 2022.

Geatches shares the advice he’s learned throughout his career—including what’s behind the undying appeal of pizza.

1. Connect category and leadership

The simplicity of the pizza concept I really enjoy, but more than anything I just enjoy pizza in general. It’s a great food. It’s something that you could eat seven days a week and change it constantly. There are so many great brands out there; it’s always drawn me to that category. Pizza is simplified; it’s a meal that everybody loves. From an investment point of view, it’s one of the best concepts you can invest in just because of its simplicity.

There are some similarities in Toppers and Papa John’s. When I first met John Schnatter and became familiar with Papa John’s, the quality of the food was huge and John was super passionate about the quality of the product. I see many of the same traits in Scott Gittrich, the founder of Toppers. He’s very passionate, almost to a point I haven’t seen in anyone before. He wants to make sure we put out the best product. He wants to make sure we have the best quality ingredients, whether we were a mom-and-pop chain or the largest chain in the world. He wants to be the best, and he’s got passion that I haven’t really seen since I first met [Schnatter] back in the early ’90s.

2. Market to millennials

The most important thing is probably going after millennials. The millennial group is everything right now. In years past, you would put out coupons in the pizza business or you would run a commercial on the radio or television. People would see the product and come in.

With millennials, it’s a lot different. They’re a lot more focused on if it’s a decent product that’s good for you and if there’s something associated with it. You’re not just buying a product.

Topper’s has been associated with several causes over the years, and hunger-related issues have been among them. There’s some giveback from the company, which I think is huge. For Taco John’s, just our little group of restaurants has given more than $100,000 to various veteran charities over the last five or six years. Not only is it important to me and our group and our team members, but I also think our customers see that we’re not just some massive corporate structure.

We make thousands of tacos at our Taco John’s restaurants every day, but every single taco is somebody’s meal, so we put a little care and time into it instead of just slopping something together and flinging it out.

3. Make employees your No. 1 priority

We’re trying to put out a quality product, and we’re trying to make a decent place for our customers, but mainly for our team members. That’s one thing that Toppers has done incredibly well. The brand sees what our team members need, not only from a financial perspective, but also by offering benefits like having personal days or paid vacation for all hourly team members.

We’re incorporating all of those values into not only the new Toppers we’re opening, but also our Taco John’s restaurants, to make sure that our team members have what they need and they’re happy about where they’re working as opposed to just coming in punching in the clock and leaving at the end of the day.

If we have a great restaurant, it’s because of the manager and the team that we have there. It has very little to do with me or even area supervisors we have. They have an impact on the restaurant, for sure, but the general manager of the store and the team that’s in the store creates everything. They create the environment; they create attitude in the restaurant.

Everything is dependent on finding great people. That’s always been our biggest challenge, and it continues to be because not a lot of people are drawn to the restaurant business. We try to make it a great place for employees, but the biggest challenge has been recruiting those people and getting them in and showing them how beneficial a restaurant career can be. We have general managers that make $70,000–$90,000 a year, and they’ve been able to send their kids to colleges and buy houses. And we have people that move up in the business that make six figures as area managers.

One of Toppers’ core values is to live with integrity, so we look for people who have a great attitude, integrity, and are going to make our customers happy and each other happy when they’re at work. A lot of companies say the customer is No. 1, and of course the customer is extremely important, but in my view, our team members are everything.

Franchising, Pizza, Story