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    Fostering Restaurant Culture by the Gospel of &pizza

  • Want great reviews for your restaurant? Here's how the thriving fast casual does it.

    An employee-first culture is the heart of &pizza's business model.

    I recently found myself regressing into a guilty pleasure: obsessively reading Yelp reviews of brands that I love. You can stare at an Excel sheet all day and never truly know what’s going on in a restaurant business. While Yelp should never be viewed in a vacuum, I’ve found that spending some time reading reviews will quickly show whether your brand is riding tailwinds or facing headwinds. 

    “My love affair with &pizza began during my first trip to D.C …” read the first of many reviews I clicked. One after another, I was struck by the recurring declarations of fidelity to &pizza. The love wasn’t reserved for just one outlier shop. All 26 locations of this tiny upstart brand had sprouted a legion of devotees making their voices heard.

    Given the majority of Yelp reviews are actually four stars or lower, and that fast-casual chain restaurants have experienced a decline in ratings in recent years, &pizza eclipses its competitors with ratings that average 4.5 stars. As an investor, a Board member, and admittedly, one of those lovestruck customers, I decided to look into &pizza’s secret sauce.

    The key begins with &pizza co-founder and CEO Michael Lastoria. With his merlinesque beard and tattooed, rock star persona, Lastoria seems destined to lead a movement, which is exactly what he says he’s doing. The company’s ampersand symbol stands for connection, inclusion and unity. He’s built an authentic brand on cultural bedrock that puts employees first, and that philosophy ultimately translates to a great customer experience that leads to impassioned five-star reviews.

    Want great reviews for your own business? Here are three takeaways I learned from &pizza:

    1. Live Culture from the Top-Down        

    Culture is one area where “fake it till you make it” does not cut it. Employees and customers will perceive cracks in a contrived culture that show up through inconsistent policy or a reaction to a crisis.

    It’s essential for CEOs to model their company’s culture with every action. Lastoria recently spent his birthday with students participating in March for Our Lives in D.C. I only know that because I saw a picture of Lastoria gleefully running around D.C. handing out free pizza. No reporters, no press conference. It wasn’t mandated by the company; supporting causes and social movements that its employees care about is just one of &pizza’s central tenets. To date, the company has supported over 1,000 causes and community efforts in the neighborhoods where it operates pizza shops. Its company policies and philanthropic efforts are directly influenced by the causes its employees care about. This authentic commitment to culture is why &pizza was recently named to the Most Innovative Companies in Social Good, alongside companies like Patagonia and Starbucks.

    2. Show You Care with Compensation, Benefits—and a Path

    Even the best intentions evaporate without a strong commitment to fair compensation and benefits, and employees won’t be vested in your company if they don’t see a trajectory for advancement. &pizza accomplishes both by paying and advocating for a living wage and healthcare benefits—and its employees know it’s not just a tactic. Lastoria routinely takes his gospel to Capitol Hill to fight for raised minimum wage standards.

    No one wants a ceiling on their head, and you can’t expect an employee to be fully invested if they’re on a road to nowhere. Think back to the time when you were in a dead-end job, and it’s easy to imagine how that feeling of drudgery would show up at the register, in the customer experience, and ultimately on Yelp. &pizza tackles the issue with a clearly defined program called The Path, which engages its part-time hourly employees through constant training, with a goal of becoming a leader in 24 months. Currently, more than 80 percent of &pizza shop leaders are promoted from within. The aspiration is to get that number up to 100 percent by 2019.

    3. Create Endless Opportunities to Communicate

    Culture is a living organism that will be shaped by innumerable forces inside and outside the company, especially under the stress of scaling. You have to create opportunities to communicate. &pizza brings together employees quarterly to check in on culture and refresh its core values.

    Things as simple as the loud pulsing music in the stores, which is integral to &pizza’s progressive, contemporary identity, are crowdsourced by employees. So too are new menu items and employee uniforms. &pizza even has a text line that guests and employees can utilize for feedback, or just simply conversation. And even though culture evolves, every employee is equipped with a very concise articulation of the principles embraced companywide. There’s no ambiguity. The net effect is a devoted employee base that has pride of authorship and ownership of company culture.

    At 38, there’s little chance Lastoria will be trading in his leather jacket and motorcycle for more traditional CEO garb anytime soon. It’s no surprise what’s at the top of his principles for an employee-first culture:

    “Celebrate oneness: we embrace being ourselves at all times and invite others to do the same.”

    I couldn’t think of a better way to run your business—or for that matter, your life.

    Matt Higgins is an entrepreneur, investor, and operator. In 2012, alongside co-founder Stephen Ross, Higgins launched RSE Ventures, a private investment firm that focuses on companies across sports and entertainment, food and lifestyle, media and marketing, and technology.