Toppers returns to its 'rebel' roots with items 'outside the (pizza) box'

| by S.A. Whitehead
Toppers returns to its 'rebel' roots with items 'outside the (pizza) box'

Toppers founder and CEO Scott Gittrich in one of the brand's Milwaukee locations.

Much like the ingredients that go into any great pizza, pizza brands are challenged more than ever before to stay fresh and innovative, especially when the brand involved has been around a while. In today's "weird-is-better" pizza world, meeting that offbeat menu item test in some manner has not only become more critical than ever, but also more difficult to achieve. 

Toppers Pizza founder and President Scott Gittrich acknowledged that fact recently in a one-on-one with Pizza Marketplace about the brand's decision to return in earnest to what Gittrich said are its over-the-top brash and innovative roots. And while the menu items aren't necessarily weird, they are a departure from "pizza restaurant as usual" mentality.  

For instance, in April the brand introduced a new baked mac-and-cheese menu item, followed this month by a new quesadilla line. Those items — along with others still in the offing — not only give Toppers a wider array of menu offerings, but also help the brand execute its commitment to what Gittrich said are "quirky" ingredients in items that fall outside the (pizza) box. 

The often outspoken restaurateur said when he founded the brand in 1991 that pizza was basically a category that featured about 10 traditional pizza toppings, making the sector relatively easy to innovate within. But, in a question-and-answer session with Pizza Marketplace, Gittrich admitted the bar has been raised in today's cauliflower crust and squid topping pizza environment, so Toppers is stepping up its game.

Q: Give us an idea of the "brash and innovative roots" that you describe as being at the very inception of this brand?
We were the second place I ever knew of that put chicken on pizzas, and now it's common. Our initial menu had a taco pizza with tortilla chips on it, which just transitioned to a nacho pizza in the last few months. ... In the mid 1990s we started making Topperstix, and they blew up and became our signature item. We added and tested many excellent menu items over the following few years with varying degrees of success.

We have had scores of unique house pizzas. The customer votes with their dollars — if they keep buying, we keep making. We have a pipeline of possibly dozens of interesting house pizzas today. 

Q: So what about the current pizza marketplace tells you that now is a time to return to this type of menu development?
The customer today expects access to any kind of food they want, ordered any way they want, delivered any way they want, at any time they want. Restaurants, grocery, convenience, offsite, and everything in between has exploited this in the last few years. 

Everyone is stealing share from everyone. There are very few businesses of any kind that can stand pat on their offerings to customers today and feel confident that their model will work forever. 

Quality and variety in food is at the heart of what we do and how we differentiate ourselves from our fast food brethren. Today we can teach our customers very easily about new products because the majority of our customers interact with us digitally. They are excited to try new offerings that fit our brand.   

Q: Can you give me some examples of the items you're developing or have developed and how they are innovative?
Pasta is a staple of Italian restaurants and many pizza companies have added pastas to their menus. At Toppers, we have innovated a line of fun and bold mac 'n cheese dishes that customers love. That is a perfect example of innovating true to the brand, or being "Toppers-worthy." Our brand is young, fun and smack-talking. Mac 'n cheese is simply more fun than Chicken Tetrazzini, eh?

We have just rolled out quesadillas, which are Mexican pizzas, Toppers-style. They're awesome and fit our operation perfectly. In the next year we expect to roll at least three more categories to the entire system to serve different needs, tastes, dayparts and demographics.

Q: So how do you gauge success with these types of offerings and what's initial customer response like?

A: It is extremely positive. Sales show higher than expected adoption, and surveys indicate that they are building the right brand perceptions as well.

Q: Nonetheless, do you think there's a risk that some of these items draw the brand away from its "pizza core"? 
Of course. Anything we sell that isn't a pizza draws away from pizza, but the important thing to nail is a Toppers-true relevance. I don't expect us to be selling sushi or hamburgers anytime soon, that's for sure. But we are clearly adopting a direction of expanding the umbrella of the brand to include additional offerings our customers will love. 

Q: So aside from yourself and the  brand's leadership, where else are innovative ideas coming from to see the brand into the future? 
We are all about collaboration at Toppers and encourage everyone on the team to submit ideas and share their thoughts for new and exciting options. We have a culture where our menu innovation team will whip up pretty much anything at least once. Then, (the team will) get feedback from various departments and team members to see how it does. Then strategically (the brand will) determine where it makes the most sense to focus our efforts from there. We believe good ideas can come from anywhere.

Editor's Note: Speaking of offbeat ingredients, stay tuned to this website next week for an exploration of that issue, including ideas about trends for pizza brands and pizza innovations specifically. 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Cheese, Customer Service / Experience, Delivery, Dough, Food & Beverage, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Pizza Toppings, Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, Staffing & Training, Trends / Statistics

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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