Wisconsin's Toppers Pizza aims for 500 stores by 2020

Whitewater, Wis.-based Toppers Pizza is rapidly expanding its system with a goal of achieving 100 units by the end of 2013, and 500 by 2020.

Currently, the chain includes about 45 units mostly in core Midwest markets such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska. Upcoming openings include locations in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas.

The plan is undoubtedly ambitious – for Toppers' first nearly 20 years, its footprint existed in Wisconsin. Now, CEO Scott Gittrich is mapping out the chain's growth in pizza-heavy Chicago and beyond, buoyed by an "anti-big chain" messaging strategy. Gittrich talked to PizzaMarketplace.com about the company's goals and strategy on how to achieve them.

PizzaMarketplace.com: What is your expansion goal for Toppers?

Scott Gittrich: The goal is to have 100 stores by end of 2013, 500 by end of 2020.

PizzaMarketplace: Why now the right time for your brand to grow at this pace?

SG: It took time to get to where we are. There is an amount of luck involved – I believe that – but our concept went through the Recession more or less unscathed. We continued to move forward in average unit volumes and store openings every year.

The reason we're opening so many stores right now is because that's how many good franchise prospects have come to us looking for a good concept they could invest in. We're in the right position to do it. We're grown up. We're not some spring chicken that decided to throw together a pizza place and start selling franchises.

PizzaMarketplace: What are the franchise prospects interested in most when they come to you?

SG: Frankly, there were a lot of concepts out there, but a lot of them have fallen off since the Recession, and (franchisees) can't get money unless it makes sense. You can't go get a $300,000 to open up a franchise company that isn't proven. The banks just have tighter purse strings. That's not the case with us. We have a fabulous story to tell about our concept and why it works.

PizzaMarketplace: How has your company changed since you began franchising in 2000?

SG: I worked at Domino's for eight years, so I grew up in the pizza business. So, when Toppers was brand new, in 1991, I knew what I was doing and how to run a profitable pizza restaurant. The people who were our first franchisees worked for me during those first years and who were the ones interested in opening their own stores. Since 2000, what's happened is we've continued to take our good fortune and reinvest it into really owning the best possible support services, marketing, etc., that we can.

PIzzaMarketplace: In such a busy category such as pizza, how does/will Toppers differentiate as it continues to grow?

SG: We're not like any other pizza place. We have a distinctive image, product and menu. When we open in a new market, we do a good job of telling our story. We don't think customers at the big chains are that loyal because the chains are perceived as similar in a sea of sameness in the pizza business. We come in and hand-make our food, we have our own sauce recipe, we look and act different and have fun. We take care of our customers and when people call us for a pizza, we're silly with them, we smack talk with them. It's a party.

PizzaMarketplace: Toppers positions itself as the "anti-big chain." Does that mean you identify independents as your main competition?

SG: I love the mom and pop pizza places. We kind of fit in-between. We are a chain but we're not fast-food-turned-out-on-a-Formica-table kind of place. We give people a clean, comfortable place to eat that customers can recognize – that a chain offers – but we act more like a run off. Our culture is a big part of who we are and it's why we have loyal customers.

PizzaMarketplace: Who are your customers?

SG: I don't like the word 'niche' because it sounds small. A lot of our units are in college towns. We definitely act young, like we're 25 or 30 years old, like a lot of the customers we serve. We show our personality when we talk to our customers, who tend to have the same personality in return – fun, irreverent, rowdy.

PizzaMarketplace: How has Toppers survived and thrived?

SG: We've grown with cash from profits that I've just reinvested and our balance sheets have gotten stronger and stronger. We're not overly risking the strong base we have. We have a distinct place in the markets we're in and customers vote with their dollars. Think of it like a Five Guys or a Chipotle. These aren't just regular hamburger and taco places, they're distinct, high quality brands and they've done a good job marketing that distinctiveness. We're doing it the same way.

PizzaMarketplace: How will you use marketing to complement Toppers' growth?

SG: We have activated regional cooperative advertising and will eventually do TV advertising in all of our markets. I couldn't be more excited about this because it's so much easier to teach people about your culture and who you are through TV. We also have a very strong social media presence and will continue to grow that. Our customers are very active on social media and interact with us and tell us what they think. We're not using social media to just pound people over the head and advertise – it's a two-way street.

PizzaMarketplace: What are your biggest challenges going into a heavy pizza market like Chicago?

SG: When I was opening stores for Domino's 25 years ago, people would say 'another pizza place, you've got to be kidding me.' I think people have always thought that because the market is huge. But that's the bonus. Everyone is strongly opinionated about pizza and we love that because we think we do it right.

Read more about franchising and growth.

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