Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | September 2015 | By Robert Thomas

Start to Finish: Nelson Lang

The founder of Pita Pit talks about how the brand's three core values stand firm 20 years after the business launched.
Chief executive of popular QSR chain shares core business values.
Nelson Lang is the founder of Pita Pit. Pita Pit

When I was 21 years old, I bought a pizza shop in New Castle, Ontario, and immediately became obsessed and passionate about the food industry. I remember seeing the writing on the wall as the big names in pizza made their introduction into the Canadian market. I knew that my prosperous little shop wouldn’t be able to keep up with top contenders in pizza, so my business partner and I devoted our time to developing a new concept. We took inspiration from Toronto, which has a multitude of different cultural influences when it comes to food, and developed a pita bread concept. The first Pita Pit opened in Kingston, Ontario, in 1995, and we began franchising in 1997. Our core values have always remained the same: find core operators, make the best possible product, and connect with your community. We’re now in 12 countries and in our 20th year, and it could not be a more exciting time. It took us 19 years to reach 500 units. Now we’ll go from 500 to 1,000 units in about four and a half years. When you surround yourself with great people, this type of success is possible.

Pita Pit is a big family, and we want to see every owner and operator become successful. Our regional managers help in this process, looking to have every unit and its franchisee reach an average daily sales goal. Not only does this goal ensure their individual success, but also the success of the family in general. I make it a point to tell each franchisee that it’s going to take a lot of hard work. Starting out in the beginning years, I remember asking myself, “What have I done?” as it seemed I was living in airplanes and rental cars for years. But the reward of this business—customers and the surrounding community—is worth it.

What’s great about our concept is that it was a healthier choice right from the start. We now have nine to 10 pitas under 400 calories and several under 500. A lot of other big brands are continuing to scramble when it comes to offering atypical, healthier choices for their customers. Pita Pit has been there all along. People are willing to pay to have a quality product, and we’ve stayed true to that for 20 years now.

What was your first job?

The Oshawa This Week newspaper at 6 years old.

When did you first enter the quick-service industry?

I worked for Mother's Pizza at 13 years old as a dishwasher.

What is your favorite menu item at Pita Pit?

Chicken breast, lettuce, tomato, Feta, a little honey mustard, a little BBQ, and a little hot sauce.

What is your favorite restaurant or type of food excluding Pita Pit?

I love Greek food.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

Waterskiing, hockey, golf.

Which menu item or operational strategy are you most proud of?

In 1997, I listened to Costa Siountres, a Pita Pit franchisee in Waterloo, Ontario, who asked for us to put a Chicken Caesar on the menu. That's become by far the most popular pita.

What is the biggest risk you've taken as CEO/founder?

Partnering up with my U.S. team. It has all worked out great!

What is the best piece of advice quick-serve executives should hear?

Listen to your team in the field, who are the ones working with the franchisees on a regular basis. Don't make a decision from behind a desk. Make it from behind a counter.

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