15 minutes with Brad Mason, CEO, Stone Flats
Pizza chains large and small are adopting the barely tapped build-your own pizza model. San Diego's new made-to-order flatbread, salad and soup concept Stone Flats is the newest comer to this realm. It’s also the underdog, helmed by recent retiree of the medical device industry, Brad Mason. But the industry outsider CEO has tapped some great industry consultants -- from veteran brands like Souper Salads and Cheesecake Factory -- to help position his brand. He also thinks he’s nailed his target demographic: The choosy 21– to 50-year-old female, who makes most of the restaurant decisions and increasingly looks for healthy options at a fast casual price point for lunch.
This demo has helped dictate how Stone Flats differs from Top That! and its sandwich shop-like setup. Stone Flats’ sleek interior looks more like a casual dining space, and the rustic pizza oven, usually employed for Neapolitan-style pie, exemplifies the sort of up-front eye-candy the main ordering space will feature.
The concept is opening soon in San Diego, Calif., and plans to expand rapidly thereafter. Here, Mason answers our questions about the concept’s core demographic and future.
PizzaMarketplace: Where did the idea come from?
Mason: I looked at what’s out there in the marketplace: Some of the franchises like Chipotle, In & Out Burger. Some of the things they have in common is they keep it very simple. Second, you can have what you want. That’s important, because I really wanted to focus on adult women as our primary guests, and they make 75 percent of the restaurant decisions.
My wife and her friends are not going out to lunch to have a slice of pizza, but they would have a salad, or very thin flatbread. And the thinner the crust, the fewer ingredients you put on it. You spread them around evenly for a flavorful bite, but it’s still under 500 calories. That’s how we evolved to where we are today. I don’t run from the word “pizza,” but we’re not exactly promoting pizzas – more like lavosh with toppings on it. It’s a twist on it.
PMC: Tell me more about your sweet-spot demographic.
Mason: Women are the sweet spot; the 21–50 sort of range is a little moreso. Once you get beyond that, fast casual is less attractive than a casual or fine dining setting. But I expect it will have traction [skewing younger] – we’re next to a high school at our first location. So it’s a pretty broad category for which our great signature soups and salads are key. You can make them how you want them.
PMC: How many stores do you plan to deploy, in what time frame?
Mason: These are going to be company-owned, not franchised. I want to control the quality. Also, it’s important for our team to focus on our guests. So that’s going to limit our growth more than if we franchised.
In the first couple of years, I’ll try to open four or five stores a year, and then I’ll start to ramp up as cash flow permits – start in San Diego, Southern California, and then try to expand. Each time we expand into an area we’ll want to try to create a critical mass to leverage [for the next location].
PMC: Do you have any experience as a restaurateur?
Mason: This is a new foray for me. The last 30 years I was in the medical device manufacturing business. I started with a couple of companies in that field, ended up being group president, and retired. And that lasted for about a week and a half.
I just liked this opportunity. I think the timing for this is good with the economy: our average ticket is going to be $9 or so. And if you can get something healthy and quick for that, I think it meets the needs of today exactly. … I also think we can create 20,000 jobs over the next 15 years.
PMC:You mentioned consultants. Who are they?
Mason: One is Tom Penn, from Real Restaurant Solutions, formerly COO at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza. He’s smart with operations. Also, Mike McKinnon, culinary director at Cheesecake Factory and Rainforest Café; he’s the process guy on the chef side, brings out our quality and consistency. We’ve got good IT people in the industry, accountants in the industry, and also have some friends who are former CEOs [of other concepts], including Souper Salads.
PMC: The salad setup is interesting – it’s build-your-own, but unlike a salad bar, you build it for customers. Is this for the showmanship angle?
Mason: Yes. The problem with the make-your-own salad is everyone’s hands are in there. I’m not going to a salad bar these days.
When you craft your own flat, it goes in the oven for 90 seconds. Those are pita ovens, not pizza ovens, so there’s a flame down each side. It’s cool because you can see the show, and see us prepare the dough. We pre-bake the flats themselves, so you can also see all of that part of the process. Everything’s done up front, we don’t even have a cook top in the back. So it’s going to be fun. I think we’ll do well. I’ll tell you in about three weeks.