CEO, President, and Co-Founder, &pizza
Michael Lastoria and &pizza’s concept arrived in New York City this summer. After much success in Washington, DC, Lastoria has opened his first Manhattan location in NoMad, and has plans to open a second NYC shop at Astor Place this fall. Founded in 2012, the company has 22 locations across the country, including in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Philadelphia and New York.
For Lastoria, &pizza’s launch in New York represents a return to the city where he concepted the business. In the tradition of many of the industry’s legendary operators he brings a very unique perspective and management style to the NYC restaurant scene.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to have Michael Lastoria take us inside his thoughts on the “Tribe” that drives success. &pizza is an “anti-establishment” establishment that supports a “living wage” and focuses on offering its employees —the “Tribe”—full-time work opportunities whenever possible, and at least $2 above the minimum wage.
“I’m not driven to ‘succeed,’ in the traditional, societally accepted sense,” Lastoria told TFS. “I’m driven to see things through that I’m passionate about. I’m willing to do the work and take the risks necessary to make that happen, and if success follows, that’s wonderful, but ‘success’ is not the ultimate goal for me. It’s actualizing my vision.”
That vision has created a culture that includes free tattoos for employees and customers, and its “Little Giants” program where &pizza partners with like-minded local brands doing big things in their communities. It also lets customers choose their own toppings, or choose from eight signature pizzas like the “American Honey,” which features NYC-based Little Giant, Mike’s Hot Honey.
So where did the idea come from for a very unique brand of pizza?
For me it was really this idea of creating a cultural movement around something that people loved, which just so happened to be pizza, and I wanted to take all the work that I had done on other companies’ brands and apply that to creating a consumer brand based on life experiences and values. And I thought, pizza was an area where I hadn’t seen a lot of innovation outside of technology in terms of design and brand. After living in New York for 8 years, I started shipping in various pieces of equipment and creating what we felt was going to be the pizza shop of the 21st century.
But you had no experience.
Well, we call that the inexperience advantage. There was no set precedent or way that we would go about doing things. It was definitely a labor of love, just kind of figuring out every aspect of the business, from the labor model to the design of the equipment to the pizza, the shape of the packaging. We built our own version of what a pizza brand could be.
One of the things that I’ve learned early on in branding is that you really want the brand to be an evolution. And I didn’t want to necessarily come out of the gate with words on a wall or a purpose outside of bringing a culture of something that would excite people. It was through a lot of trial and error, through pain and exorbitantly low rents, through opening up a pizza shop in a neighborhood, certainly not Downtown D.C. but in the northeast part of D.C. that gave us a lot of flexibility to make the right decisions based on our people and taking care of them and our guests.
How did you decide on where the second location was going to be?
Walking the streets in the city and learning where you think might be a good place. It’s very tough because there’s no real formula, not what drives larger companies’ decisions in terms of the data and the metrics. It’s basically a good algorithm. And we didn’t have an algorithm. It’s wildly guts and intuition and spending time doing the heavy lifting and hard work to get a sense of traffic patterns and foot traffic and understanding what’s working in your current business that you can replicate and what’s not working in your current business that you don’t want to run with.
So, as you looked at unit number two, what were you looking for? Was it the marketplace? Tell me a little bit about how you landed at your second spot.
Well, we looked at what worked in Washington.
What did you take from that unit as you planned your future growth?
It wasn’t really sequential, open one restaurant, then another. We learned to do different things. We call our customers our “guests”. From their behavior we learn what’s working and what’s not. This is a labor of love every single day. You get into it a little bit deeper, you learn a little bit more and you have more data to help support your gut. And you just hope that you make more right decisions than wrong and you don’t screw this up, to a point where data can help you drive a number of the decisions you’re making.
Tell me about the pillars of your business strategy.
There are four pillars of our brand statement. The first pillar is called Tribe-First, a group of people who are connected to each other, a leader and, ultimately, to a purpose. The idea of the tribe mentality is putting your people ahead of your guests and treating your people as your guests and those that you serve.
We treat our employees the same way we treat our guests. Customers are not always right. Having been a customer all my life I can tell you the issues I’ve had with businesses. You look people in the face and tell them that they need to treat people who are wrong like they’re right. I think that sets a bad precedent. It’s more about listening. I’d rather empower you and educate you on the business and allow you to make the right decisions based on being there and watching it firsthand and using your intuition and the knowledge base that you’ve acquired to make those decisions. And that’s really focusing more on developing our tribe members to understand all facets of the business, teaching them that we believe wholeheartedly in their oneness and their personality and their ability to figure these things out on their own. We just provide them with the sort of company guardrails so you don’t go too far off to the left or too far off to the right. I don’t want mainstream, I want you to be uniquely individual, but I also just want to give you the frame of mind to make really good decisions. We also believe as fair a wage as possible.
What’s the second pillar?
It’s called Little Giants, which is the idea of supporting small, like-minded brands that are doing big things in their community. We feature what we call our Little Giants, our partners, on our menu, whether it be a dessert partnership, an ingredient partnership or just showcasing someone in our shop who we can help use our platform now to help spread their word. This also applies to our charity concept, &CHARITY. We’ve supported over a thousand local causes.
We want to make sure we put our weight behind small businesses when we’re excited about what they’re doing, so we support those that do share the same philosophy on business, and we want to do our part to spread their word as far and as wide as we can.
What’s the third piece?
The third is called Clean Eats. Our pizza is capable and customizable, and doesn’t compromise on flavor, and our ingredients tend to be healthier. We have a more responsible supply chain that’s GMO-free and S-G free. We make all of our own soda, which we call &SODA, and it’s caffeine-free, and has all-natural flavors. We’re really thinking through the responsibility of putting the right stuff in people’s bodies. That’s not necessarily commonplace in the pizza industry. We know we can create a delicious pizza with better stuff for you. We don’t overtly promote ourselves as “the healthy pizza.” Because you’ve chosen the pizza, not a salad! But we want to make sure that our customers know that we’re very thoughtful and mindful, and that we’re constantly elevating the expectation of the types of ingredients that people consume on pizza, that they can be delicious and they also don’t have to be bad for you.
And what’s the fourth?
It’s cultivating creativity. It’s kind of a running joke internally that we use pizza as an excuse to make art. You look at our product packaging and it’s very different. When everyone goes left, we go right. Not for the sake of going against the grain but we truly have a point of view as creatives. We like to put things out in the marketplace that people have never tasted or seen before. Our packaging and the pie itself is shaped differently than any other on the market. The way our pizza is packaged looks like nothing I’ve ever seen before. That sets us apart. It’s trying to come up with something that symbolizes the quality of what is inside.
So what do you think it is that’s resonated with people here?
The fact that it’s different and I think New Yorkers like things that have a strong point of view and that feel different and unique. It’s more of a statement like the clothing people wear, or the music they listen to and it gives people a chance to show their own personal expression. Customization and personalization is critical. That’s becoming more and more of a trend. You can always customize and personalize pizza but you can’t really do that by the slice. A lot of pizzas aren’t necessarily cooked to order. So there’s a freshness, which adds another layer of uniqueness to our pies. The customization allows for self-expression, like the brand itself. When you walk in on Thursday and Friday nights, the music is now right there and it feels like you’re walking into a party. From the design to the pizza to the packaging to music, everything is different and I think people get a kick out of that.
What went into the choice of the right oven?
It was always about finding an oven that was convenient and flexible. We knew that from the start, many of our stores would be in non-traditional real estate locations. So that meant we needed a high quality ventless oven solution. We found it with Turbo Chef. The convection conveyor hybrid solution from Turbo Chef has been incredibly consistent for us with a minimal amount of service. Our strategy has been that if you start with quality ingredients and the right oven that you’re going to get a quality pie.
What’s coming up?
We’re going to open our second New York shop in the fall at 740 Broadway near Astor Place. We’re continuing to be cautiously optimistic about what we can do here in NYC, but we also want to make sure that we take care of our home turf. I think that when you focus on your growth, you can sometimes lose sight of the pillars that you’ve built our business on. It’s always about being the best version of ourselves. We don’t really care about what the next pizza shop is doing. We certainly pay attention, but we are our own brand, we’re our own company and we’re very proud of what we’ve built. We also know we have a really long way to go and we’re looking forward to fighting for every inch. Being a great employer, being a great neighbor, continuing to be creatively led all while still marching to the beat of our own drum. That’s where we’re going.
How do you go to bid? Do you build loyalty with the vendor, etc., in terms of toppings and food distribution?
We think loyalty is about how well our partners grow alongside us. My preference is always to have fewer partners longer. That being said, you know our business model is not built around a vendor first. We put our vendors ahead of our shareholders. It’s important that our vendors are able to provide us with the quality of the ingredients, with the quality assurance and quality control to provide our tribe members and our operators with the type of delivery and the type of service that allows them to do their job better than the next. And so we certainly hold our vendors to a high standard.
What about marketing and promotion and advertising? Is it a social media-driven strategy, especially with your advertising background?
There’s of course nothing more important than having a buttoned-up shop experience. We strive to win over the people who walk through the door and allow them to spread the gospel. That’s probably our number one marketing tactic. That being said, our marketing thesis is primarily community relations and digital community relations. Having boots on the ground, being a good neighbor and charity partner, which has heavily influenced our brand partnerships.
And you offer your tribes a tattoo.
When I was working the first pizza shop, a gentleman approached me and asked me if he could get the ampersand from the &pizza logo tattooed on him, and I asked him why. It really came back to one of our four core values. He told me that this was the first company where he felt like he could be himself and the company really encourages that behavior. And that really moved me because that was kind of one of the bases around starting this company in the first place, and I offered to pay for him to get that tattoo. Then that just started the whole thing! If you work for us and you want to get the ampersand tattooed, the company will foot the bill. It’s become sort of a larger-than-life thing internally, one of those things that happened organically.
Our ampersands stand for diversity, unity and connectedness. It’s a powerful symbol that exists and is relevant outside of our business. If someone were ever to get the tattoo and no longer work here, that’s still a memory that can mean all the right things, regardless of the connection to this brand.
So what does the future look like?
We’re still so young that it’s really hard to answer that question. But profit was never the fundamental motivator. I know that sounds a little cliché, but I have the luxury of having exited a business in my 20s, understanding the pros and cons of liquidity and building a company for profit. I really wanted to make sure this company was built with a focus on the day in and day out. I want everyone’s head hitting the pillow feeling like we did a better job today than we did yesterday. And this company is in better shape as a result of that. It’s really enjoying the experience and keeping our head down. Having the best damn business on the planet Earth. When you chase liquidity or an exit or an opportunity, that’s where the dilution of what makes a great business start to happen.