Hitting The Mark
Conversations with founders about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success.
Ep016 – Michael Lastoria, Co-Founder, &pizza
Fabian sits down with creative extraordinaire Michael Lastoria, who, after selling his New-York-based agency to beauty powerhouse Shiseido in 2017, is now Co-Founder of the counter culture pizza brand ‘&pizza,’ which has 36 locations in the U.S. and is rapidly growing based on its inherent brand thinking and employee-first commitment.
When your employees and customers alike start tattooing your brand mark onto their bodies, you know that you’ve been growing a special kind of brand. Full of energy and wisdom, Michael is sharing the stories and recipes behind &pizza’s brand success with you on this whirlwind of inspiration we call Episode 16.
I first learned about Michael Lastoria when his brand, &Pizza, has been named one of the world’s 50 Most Innovative Companies the second time in a row by Fast Company. Diving deeper into what at first glance would seem like a commodity-type business (we are talking about selling pizzas here after all) soon turned into the discovery of a brand that succeeds through heart & soul, coupled with tech & innovation.
Michael sees himself as the human-first entrepreneur. A CEO and co-founder of & Pizza, now 36 locations throughout the east coast, Michael has championed his employees whom the brand calls its tribe. It’s not only the face of the brand, but it’s the core of the business. & Pizza pays a fair and livable wage, and Michael has been a vocal member of the fight for state and federal minimum wage increases. Lastoria believes in building a brand first and a business second so that the brand is not just a momentary phenomenon, but an essential part of culture. & Pizza is the manifestation of that belief.
Fabian Geyrhalter: Welcome to Hitting the Mark. Today we have the first in a series of at least two back to back episode where I talk with branding professionals, like myself, who turned into entrepreneurs selling what some could call upon first glance a “so what” commodity-type product. This is exciting for numerous reasons besides the obvious of a creative talking to one of their kind, but also because these two guests embody the hypothesis of my book, Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture Into an Admired Brand. First today, we start this miniseries of creatives flipping business categories on their head with Michael Lastoria who was the co-founder of New York City-based creative agency J-Walk before he turned his interests to making the world a better place through the power of pizza.
Michael Lastoria sees himself as the human-first entrepreneur. A CEO and co-founder of & Pizza, and that is Ampersand Pizza, now 32 locations throughout the east coast, Michael has championed his employees whom the brand calls its tribe. It’s not only the face of the brand, but it’s the core of the business. & Pizza pays a fair and livable wage, and Michael has been a vocal member of the fight for state and federal minimum wage increases. Lastoria believes in building a brand first and a business second so that the brand is not just a momentary phenomenon, but an essential part of culture. & Pizza is the manifestation of that belief and I cannot wait to dive into this conversation. Welcome, Michael. Thank you for being on Hitting the Mark.
M Lastoria: Fabian, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Michael, as I touched on in the intro, I released a book last year which I will send you a copy of that studied start-ups that transformed into admired brands despite being based on commodity-type offerings, like sock, office supplies, packaged seafood stews, stuff like that. It fascinated me as someone who is in the business of branding, like yourself, to study how they did it without any innovation or tech or big design adjustments in tow. In the end, I balled these findings into eight traits. Story, belief, cause, heritage, delight, transparency, solidarity and individuality. After studying your company, & Pizza, for a little bit, I actually believe that you must be one of my first guests who truly either embodies or touches upon most of these all while pushing hard on tech and innovation at the same time. So, needless to say, really thrilled that you made it onto the show. Let’s go back in time a little bit. You’re running a successful creative agency, sold it to the cosmetic giant Shiseido in 2017, I believe, and then had the thought of starting a pizza chain. Tell us more. How did that come about?
M Lastoria: Yeah, I definitely got a number of laughs. My friends and family thought it was somewhat comical given they didn’t quite appreciate what I was trying to do in terms of really humanizing a company and lifting up the lowest wage workers in this country, and hopefully being a case study for a business that can succeed, that does good in this world, and is a case study for other restaurant and retail companies to follow in terms of being able to have some of the best unit or store or shop level economics while also paying a living wage, developing your people from within and really being a champion of democratizing the business at every single level.
So, kind of taking a little step further back, I founded my first business at 22. It was also a service business, more in media and ad tech, sold it to a private equity group, stayed on board to run that as CEO for three years. Then I co-founded the ad agency. Having spent a better part of a decade on the service side, learning what my passion was and ultimately where a small kid from a country town, what he should be doing in this world in terms of contributing for the greater good, decided I wanted to launch a brand that was very values-driven. At the time, it was more about the values of the man that I hoped that I would become versus the man that I was, and that’s why the company is named & Pizza. It’s a generally speaking, a fairly goofy name for a brand, but we wanted to lead with a symbol that was all about promoting unity, celebrating oneness and doing the right thing by our people, hence the ampersand and leading with this big, meaty, emotional symbol that we hoped that we could turn into something that was very powerful and impactful.
Picked pizza because when I was studying all the different businesses we could apply this notion of unity and doing the right thing and helping people, the food service industry in America alone employs 10% of America’s workforce. When you think about the impact that we could make as a company in an industry that employs 10% of the workforce in America, that we could flip on its head this very notion of what it means to be an employer and find some success in doing so. That’s what led me to & Pizza. I started it in 2000 … Well, really concepted it in 2010, 2011. Opened the first pizza shop in 2012, and we’re going to open up our 36th pizza shop in New York City on Wall Street, our third in New York City, in about two weeks here.
F Geyrhalter: That is amazing. And you just answered just about four of my questions in the last couple of minutes. This is great.
M Lastoria: Sorry about that.
F Geyrhalter: I really love that. That’s why … And obviously, I would have asked about the name, right? Because at first glance, there are two things that don’t make much sense. First, the name, and then the reason of why you picked pizza. After your intro, everything makes a lot of sense. The & Pizza, the pizza is basically a side effect, and it is just a vehicle for you to actually change something much bigger. That’s nicely reflected in the name. It’s very neat.
Looking back though, obviously being in the restaurant business is, I guess, considered hell usually, right, for the entrepreneur doing it as well as the employees. It’s really, really rough, right? It’s really tough to get into the business. It’s tough to stay on top. Looking back, what was that one big breakthrough moment where you felt like, “Okay, now it’s not just a start-up pizza joint, but it’s actually a brand, and it’s turning into a full-fledged, beloved and established chain.” What was the one moment where you felt like this is it, we just made it?
M Lastoria: Yeah, there was obviously the success of the first location. The fact that there was a line that was wrapping around the block. The decisions that we made sort of enabled that, but the moment I look back on was when we did have a single pizza shop, and one of our employees, whom we call tribe members … Mainly, we called them tribe members because of this notion that it’s a group of people connected to each other, connected to leadership, but ultimately, connected to a higher purpose. And our purpose, obviously, it is our symbol, our ampersand. All about promoting unity. But when one of our tribe members came to me, and he asked me if he could get the symbol, the ampersand, tattooed on him. I was a little taken aback because it wasn’t something … I have tattoos myself, and we’re very much in a tattoo-forward culture, but I was taken aback because I never thought that a human being would want this brand symbol tattooed on them.
I asked the question, “Why?” And the answer was, “This is the first company where I truly feel comfortable in my own skin. I feel appreciated. I feel supported. I feel respected. I feel like I’m part of a family. I’m part of a group of people that is like-minded, that has very similar values, and I’ve never gotten that from a place of work. That’s why I want to get this symbol tattooed.” I put my arm around his back, and I said, “Let’s go. I’m paying for it.” It became one of those things that has helped define the culture, not because we want people to have this & tattooed on them so they can walk around helping market or promote the company because quite frankly the symbol is a very generic symbol. Ampersand has been around for long time. At one point, it was, I think, the 27th letter of the alphabet. So, it’s been there. The interesting thing here was, no, it was really about a definition of why the company is special, why our values matter.
Even if you don’t work at & Pizza a year after getting the tattoo, it’s what it meant, what we are trying to do, and the impact that we’re trying to make in this world. We’ve had literally hundreds and hundreds of tribe members get tattooed. At any given point, about 20% of the workforce has this brand logo tattooed on them, and I look at that as something that’s very humbling and incredibly fulfilling because it is the definition of getting people together and getting people that have similar values, that believe in the same things, and really mobilizing them to do some good. That’s what that means. People care about the mission. They care about our values, and they’re willing to get it tattooed to show. That’s the defining point for me of when I knew that we were onto something special when the people were vocal. When the masses in the organization started to care more about the values and could better define the symbol than even I could myself that created it.
F Geyrhalter: Because when it comes from within, you know it’s going to work outside, right? That whole idea that if the company culture works and is healthy, then consumers, customers, outside, whoever that is, they will feel it, and it will be effective. But that begs the question, did branding affect your company culture or was it vice versa? It’s kind of like a chicken or egg situation with & Pizza.
M Lastoria: Yeah, well, I think the branding helped create the visual and the inspiration behind what the culture eventually became. The tricky thing with culture is that it’s constantly changing. Businesses like & Pizza that are people-driven, every time that you lose an employee, or you gain one, your company culture is bound to shift, right?
F Geyrhalter: Yeah.
M Lastoria: It’s simply the sum of the ingredients, and the ingredients are the people. For us, what’s nice is that every time we bring someone to the organization, the brand, what it stands for, its values, what it means, how people connect to it, helps really define the culture as in the starting place where people can be grounded. And then, what they do ultimately is take that brand, and they make it their own, right?
F Geyrhalter: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
M Lastoria: They have their own expression of what it means to them, and they then spread that gospel. I’m okay with the ampersand meaning different things to different people. I have my definition, and if you were to ask one of the 750 employees or tribe members that work at & Pizza, they all may have a slight variation, and that’s okay because that, to me, is perfectly structured where there’s enough there where people get it, but then also enough flexibility to truly make it their own. I think this notion of celebrating individuality, people’s own definition, why it matters to them is as important as why you got started and what the brand means to you as someone that created it.
F Geyrhalter: It is a symbol that just evokes hope. It evokes the beginning of another chapter. I’m sure that that’s what a lot of your employees feel like, especially if they come in at the very entry level, and they start feeling like they’re part of a family, and it’s a different kind of job that they had before maybe. In an interview you said that your employees are feeling appreciated, engaged, supported and valued. But it’s an industry that is known for labor-intensive, minimum wage type of work. You’re talking a lot about core values. Obviously, I’m in the business of creating core values with my clients and then pushing them to actually successfully instill them into their employees, which is so much harder than actually coming up and deriving these core values, right?
How do you accomplish that sentiment across the board of your employees that they take the values, that they understand the values, but that they also have that flexibility to take it to wherever they want to, but they feel this really big bond amongst each other and with the company’s brand? It’s not a simple answer, right? But what are some of the ways that you feel like you made this intrinsic and organic that it actually worked?
M Lastoria: Yeah, I think it’s a very tricky and somewhat loaded question because it’s constantly a work in progress, and there’s a lot of things that we do. I think wage is a very good starting place to show your people that you care, but it’s much more than wage. I think the notion of paying a living wage or paying well above the minimum wage is one thing and then there’s willing to sort stake your own personal reputation, the company’s reputation, to fighting against the National Restaurant Association, to fighting against a lot of the political headwinds in terms of trying to make your internal policy actual government and federal policy which has been a very difficult thing.
I think this notion that our people are seeing us put our money where our mouth is, or at least, live our own values outside of & Pizza and pushing for policy that impacts their friends, their family, regardless of whether or not they work here, has been one of the biggest ways, I think, where people have said, “Gosh, I believe in this, and I believe in it even more because I trust the people that are making the decisions, that are leading, because they’re doing the very things that this symbol is supposed to do and the things that this brand actually stands for.” Our willingness to take a stand, our willingness to do the right thing, our willingness to put the strength and use the platform of the company to impact social issues … I mean, we’re living in a country and a nation that’s becoming increasingly more divided, and it’s 2019.
That’s not what we should be seeing. We should be seeing significantly more people uniting because when I travel the world, I see the youth of this world being more connected versus disconnected in terms of the things that they believe in, how they choose to live their life and the values that they subscribe for. I’m very hopeful about where things are going, but I also think it’s extremely important for brands to act as people, brands to take a stand, and be willing to say, “These are the issues that are important to our people, and so we’re going to put the weight of the company behind those issues regardless of what they are.” Again, that’s what helps build the trust that gets people listening and communicating with the company, and that’s a lot of things I think companies miss is that if you don’t fundamentally trust the leadership or trust the decision-making process, it’s going to be very hard to develop people and to have the type of culture that you’re looking for.
You have to do a lot to trust people. In addition to that, you also have to learn how to communicate. All of our communication inside of our company happens vis a vis text message. So, we predominantly communicate with our tribe members via text messaging. Our weekly newsletter is not a newsletter. It’s a podcast to get texted out. We’re constantly doing trivia to earn cash prizes that get paid the minute that the trivia questions get answered, right? We’re doing all kinds of survey work, and it literally is a two-way communication allows for any idea, no matter how small or big it is, to be recognized, to be heard. And then we close the feedback loop by letting everyone know, hey, here are all of the text themes that we received over the last 30 days.
Here’s policy that we changed as a result of your ideas, and here are the things that we didn’t change, and here are the reasons why. So, bringing people closer into the decision-making process, really helping democratize it and setting up communication that’s modern and is the way that people would prefer to be communicated with because that’s how they are communicating with their friends and family. I think the willingness to be bold and use technology to help facilitate that is another way to create connection, to get people to speak out. Make it frictionless, make it really easy, make it take a matter of seconds versus … And do it on a platform that people fundamentally understand.
F Geyrhalter: Those are all amazing ways that you just intrinsically basically walk the walk with the values, right? You don’t just put … We have five values on the wall and say, “This is it. You can see them on our website, and it’s in our employee handbook,” but you actually constantly go after those values and figure out how can we actually behave that way, and how does that come from the top? It was an amazing answer to a question that actually led into a lot of different other scenarios. One of them is the whole walking the line of politics versus whatever product you sell. For you, it’s pizza, right? Especially since one of your locations is in the hub of the House of Representatives in D.C., correct?
M Lastoria: It is. Yes, it is.
F Geyrhalter: I read that you adorned the walls of & Pizza in that location with the following statements. Where it all takes shape. Where decisions are made. Where pioneers walk and walls talk which is so bold and so great. Just knowing enough about & Pizza, it is so on brand. I know you and I totally 100% agree on the idea that there is little room for brands to not take a stand in 2019 and that it actually nurtures brand’s tribes, but where do you cross that line? I know you signed a petition for companies to stand up for reproductive rights. You do a lot politically. Where do you cross the line? How far do you go? When do you feel like this is something that the company should support and actually speak out about?
M Lastoria: To me, it’s less about partisanship because that is also the opposite of bringing people together and unity. It’s really more about the social issues that impact the employees of the company, and that is really sort of where we draw our line which is that things that are impacting our people or that are negatively impacting our people, those are the types of things that we really want to rally behind because we treat them like family. If I can do something to help out a family member, and I have a broader or a greater platform to do so, I think the right thing to do is to use that platform. That’s really how we choose to be political or not which is just simply focusing on what are the social issues that our people truly care about, the ones that are impacting them and impacting the communities that they live in and the communities that, quite frankly, we serve with our customer as our guests.
How do we let everyone know what true north is in our eyes and how we can ultimately be helpful. Some are more controversial than others, but we’re predominantly in some of the larger cities in this country, and we’re dealing with a lot of those issues as well, and so I think it’s just the responsible thing and the right thing to do. And again, I’m not trying to say lean left or lean right. I’m just trying to say, “Hey guys, these are the real things that are happening and the real things that are affecting the employees of this organization.” I want to be heard, and I want to let you know exactly what’s going on and how we feel and get political just because I think, again, it’s showing that support for the people that come here.
And again, willing to stake my own reputation because there’s always a backlash. Anytime you do take a stand, you are going to become a target, and people are going to attack you, and so it has to come from the right place and a place where you feel like when your head hits that pillow every single night that you did the right thing. I will always live and die or fall on the proverbial sword by doing the right thing regardless of the outcome.
F Geyrhalter: And you do this because your brand is about your people, and that’s why it is a one-to-one alignment with whatever political situations you encounter and you start supporting. Again, it’s not left or right, it’s about the people because that’s what the brand is about.
M Lastoria: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s not the Michael Lastoria brand. It’s the & Pizza brand, right? There’s a lot of things that I believe in that I don’t speak out publicly about as the sort of representative of the & Pizza brand because I don’t feel like it’s appropriate. I probably do lean a little further left than some people, but that’s not my place to use the company’s platform to have those conversations. The company’s platform is for the company. It’s for its people. I’ll be the spokesperson for that, and basically, I’m the sort of appointed leader of the & Pizza democracy where I am doing the speaking on behalf of everyone, and we all are aligned on what the messaging is and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely. Let’s move over to the tech and innovation part of your brand for a minute because I talked about commodity products before, and you’re totally moving into a very different direction because you are actually leading with tech and innovation. You decide on new locations using Uber Eats heat mapping technology, and you launched many restaurants called cubes which are 300 square feet mini locations within existing structures that can easily be adjusted, assembled and disassembled. You will soon only be able to order & Pizza pizzas via text message which I think comes from within, right?
M Lastoria: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
F Geyrhalter: Because that’s how you guys and gals already communicate. There’s going to be no app, no phone, not even email, so you have employees as well as AI bots respond to text orders with gifs of Millennial stars like Lady Gaga or Rihanna to connect with your customers. You’re big, and rightfully so, into automating boring and also dangerous tasks like slicing pie and sliding them into 800 degree ovens for which you now use robots. One aspect of your tech-infused innovative way of conducting business that I’m particularly interested in is you have a fleet of mobile units that are really, I guess, considered smart trucks, that cook up pizzas as they approach a destination. Tell me a little bit about the logistics and process of these mobile units. I assume they are GPS-based, but who in the truck unless it’s a robot or a doughbot as you call them is making the pies? Walk me through the chain of events when it comes to & Pizza’s mobile units, and correct me if anything I just said was wrong because I got it from different sources.
M Lastoria: Sure. Yeah, so, listen the technology side is just about keeping an eye towards the future and looking at a lot of the successes that our predecessors and those that came before us have had, but also some of the mistakes that were very, very costly which is this idea of the mass replication of a thing. A lot of restaurant brands, even retail, missed the shift towards all things digital, and I think in retail you saw it just through the sheer presence of the likes of an Amazon. In restaurants, you’re seeing a lot of disruption to the likes of an Uber Eats or a DoorDash, these very large companies that are getting massive funding that are able to take your food out of your restaurant and deliver it to a customer without you actually having any real interaction with that customer whatsoever or even owning that customer relationship.
So, what you’re seeing is the lack or the amount of change in the real estate that you actually need to properly service your customers. If you were a 2,500 square foot restaurant, you may only need 1,500 square feet this day and age because 20, 30, 40% of all of your sales are now coming through off-premise sales, not on-premise. Being really forward-looking, it’s saying, “Okay, well, I need to have a flexible format model where I can technically serve my product in a variety of different formats that range in terms of the actual cost themselves to build so I can make sure I can still get my product to the people cost-effectively and responsibly, and so I’m not beholden to a certain piece of real estate that I can only take for me to scale.”
For us, we can open up a 300 square foot kiosk or cube like you had mentioned, and we can generate the same revenue in 300 square feet as we can 2,000 square feet. Or we can do very similar. The trucks themselves, the real key there is that they’re more like mobile production commissary in the sense that we are doing native delivery, third party deliver, order ahead for pickup, and having the ability for people to walk up to the trucks themselves and place and order either on their mobile phone as they’re walking up or with someone that’s standing outside the truck that will help facilitate that. The idea is it’s a shop on wheels, right? So, just think they’re all just varying different shop types and shop formats that have a different cost to build that allow me to scale faster, more cost-effectively, and to get my product to the people in a way that you just haven’t seen before. That is our answer to increasing occupancy vis a vis rent.
More business is happening off-premise. Kind of just traditional real estate that no longer works for a lot of restaurant and retail brands. How are we still going to grow? How are we going to build out new markets? How are we going to do it quicker, faster, cheaper, so that we can accelerate as a brand in a climate and environment that’s becoming more and more and more of a challenge and difficult? That’s just our world of leveraging technology, leveraging flexible format, thinking throughout the architecture of the business model to make sure that it’s going to work in the next five to ten years. So many people get caught up in today. What’s going to work today? How can I make a quick buck on a trend? Business is becoming increasingly more complicated. Businesses need to become increasingly more dynamic, and you have to do everything well.
You can’t just do one thing well, and that would be my biggest challenge to anyone in consumer branding or entrepreneurship which is you have to look at every aspect of your business, not just making the best possible product, but how does that product get in the hands of the people? What are the different channels in terms of DST versus wholesale/retail, and how can these large tech companies and even small tech companies potentially come around and disrupt your entire business model? How do you get ahead of that stuff? That’s really what the architecture of all the things that you just suggested was about. It’s not really about the robotics. The robotics are a little bit more forward-looking in terms of automating simple, mundane tasks, but that’s the less important thing.
The more important thing is how do we open up more pizza shops? How do we service more guests? How do we become a larger and greater employee, and how do we leverage technology as a way to help facilitate all of that because, to your point, if you’re in a commodity business, you better make it really damn easy to get that commodity. It better be frictionless. It better have an amazing loyalty program and give me a reason why when I’m looking at 40 or 50 other brands that I can order from, that I’m going to order from your product. There’s a lot of things that go into triggering that emotional response, and this is the one they needed to have. There’s a big gap between Shake Shack and Five Guys, between Soul Cycle and Fly Wheel. I can go on and on about the comparisons, but they matter, and that is branding, but it’s also spreading that brand across every single touchpoint, not just through creative.
F Geyrhalter: And understanding that there is an immense amount of data lying around that can actually make your business smarter. So, I think that’s also a huge aspect of how you seem to be running the business. Just with the Uber Eats idea, right? I mean, the data is out there. You’ve got the heat maps. You see where you might want to start a new location. You don’t just have to buy the coolest new property in the center square. Now you have other data. Not shockingly so, and you hinted at that, you’re continuously creating new PR and branding ideas. You changed the avatars on your social media channels to match whatever activation you’ve just launched. Currently I read, and this is super cool, you run a promotion with a secret summer menu that gets switched out, I guess, every couple of weeks, and currently features an Oreo ricotta pizza as well as a Cheetos spicy tomato pizza.
But since it is a secret menu, you can only find it on the secret website incognito.&pizza.com, which will show you a 404 error until you actually view that website in the incognito window of your browser, which is absolutely genius. You also run a loyalty program, which you just mentioned where depending on their level of pizza intake, your customers get & Pizza bomber jackets, they get branded dog tags, or for the superfans of the superfans which are at what you call the Maverick level of having spent around $1.5K on pizzas, they can actually get an & Pizza tattoo inked onto their body for a lifetime just like one of your tribe members. With all of these ideas surrounding the brand, what was something you thought would absolutely kill it, but then it bombed completely? This does not even need to be on the PR and advertising level, but it can also be on an entrepreneurial level when building out the & Pizza brand. Was there this one thing, this one moment where you’re like, “Wow, that just really didn’t go right even though I thought it would”?
M Lastoria: Yeah. I think in our business, I mean, because it’s pizza there isn’t really a massive … We haven’t had any massive failures as it relates to rolling out products or trying new things that didn’t really work. It’s more about trying to figure out what the best use of, sometimes, limited resources and limited capital, and not getting too distracted in terms of trying to do too many things too quickly because organizations typically struggle through ingestion which is just taking on more than they’re actually capable of taking on. That’s the thing that we wrestle with the most. Isn’t necessarily one big thing that really didn’t work. There’s definitely been a lot of little things in terms of various ingredients, various different types of pies.
This notion of the different types of footprints. We also operate in bars. We have three of those up and running right now. We have a really cool draft cocktail program where we’re pre-batching all of the cocktails because of this notion that it’s really hard to get a consistently-made, high quality cocktail from a bartender because of the just inconsistency in terms of the small, little minutiae that could make a great drink taste not so great. And so, how do you kind of disrupt that? We’re doing that with some really interesting people here in Washington, D.C. So, not to not give you a very direct answer, but for us, it’s not the big failures. It’s just the prioritization of how do we stage this the right way? If we have limited capital, how do we spend it in the right way to make sure that the business is investible, to make sure that we’re always doing the right thing by our people, and we’re serving a really good product at an affordable cost that people are excited to consume?
That’s not always an easy thing, but we have more resources at our disposal now than ever before. It’s just making sure that as someone in consumer branding, you’re taking advantage of those resources, and you’re constantly in trial and error mode so you can at least be on the forefront of knowing what’s out there and what products or what services or what tools you should use to facilitate and assist with your growth.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. No, absolutely. I think that is really, really good advice. It comes back to the idea of sometimes slowing down and looking at priorities. Talking about the concept of bars and talking about the communities, I heard that it is very important to & Pizza to involve and reflect each community in which you open up a new shop. How does a chain of, I guess, 36 stores at this point go about keeping the brand consistent? I’m hinting at robust, franchise-worthy style guides here. While allowing it, though, to adapt to its changing environments and to actually become part of a community.
M Lastoria: It just takes a little bit more time, energy, effort, and research. I don’t think any of this stuff isn’t doable. It’s just making a commitment to doing it and then baking that into the business model very early on that it’s going to cost an extra $50,000 to do it well versus not going to, and why is it a priority and importance for us to do it? When we go into a neighborhood or community, we want to inspire. It’s not just about embracing where the neighborhood has been, it’s also about providing an environment that looks and feels different, that has some inspiration in the walls, that’s very upbeat and uplifting. One of the most important things for us is to get the culture and get the vibe of that neighborhood or that community right so we’re adding value to it.
When people walk in the doors of an & Pizza shop, I do want them to feel like they’re entering into a safe place, a place that regardless of where they’ve been or what’s happened that day, that week, that month, that they feel like they can put their shoulders down, smile, laugh, dance, have fun because at the end of the day, pizza is one of those things. If you’ve chosen to eat a pizza, you’ve chosen not to eat a salad, and so you should really enjoy the experience of making your own pizza, crafting your own pizza, eating your pizza, whatever that may be.
That’s a very important thing to the brand, something that we work really hard on doing which is being culturally connected and relevant, making sure the music is right, making sure the design aesthetic is right, that we’re building things that people haven’t necessarily seen before, but also don’t feel that unfamiliar. It’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know I liked this. I didn’t know I like high black and white contrast in a pizza shop,” where you’re used to seeing a lot of red and white checker cloth, right? Those are the kind of things where you just flip it on its head, inspire people and see how they react to it because even if it’s not for them, that maybe doesn’t reflect their personal style, I think they’ll appreciate it.
It kind of takes me back to the best conversations I’ve had in my lifetime have been with people that are the most different, the most unique, but also the ones that are willing to share that difference and share that uniqueness with me and have a really strong point of view. That’s when I’m listening that most. That’s when I’m learning. That’s when I’m widening my horizons. I look at that as branding too which is the world doesn’t need your version of someone else’s idea, right? The world needs your idea. It needs your version of a pizza shop, not your version of someone else’s idea of a pizza shop. This idea of copycat and imitation, it’s got to stop. It’s not helping anyone, and a lot of capital is being wasted toward people that don’t follow their heart or don’t follow what they think is the right thing to do, but instead try to follow someone else’s. I’m just seeing more and more businesses like that die on the vine.
It’s important, I think, for all of us to lead with a unique point of view, be willing to express ourselves, be willing to create products and service-based businesses that have that in them that you can feel the creators in the building, in the walls of the things that they’re designing. I think that has a long-lasting impact. How do we take, to your point, a commodity, and how do we personalize it? How do we give it a real personality? And by the way, that personality needs to extend digitally as well. One of the most frustrating things for me is when you see a brand have such a big digital personality and then it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Oh, they have an amazing Twitter handle, but you go to their Instagram account, it’s nothing like their Twitter handle. And God forbid you go into their restaurant where you get no experience like that. You can’t be super witty on one platform and dry and bland on another because that’s not real. That’s not authentic. That’s you just trying to win a platform for marketing’s sake, not an authentic brand that has a digital brand personality that matches the physical. We need to be thinking about connectedness in all touchpoints, and that is where I think brands can really do a better job.
F Geyrhalter: So true. I think in the end it all comes back to having soul, right? That the brand actually needs to have soul. It needs to evoke a feeling, and that needs to be across all touchpoints, especially in the hospitality business. That is super difficult to achieve and that’s why kudos to what you’re doing and, more importantly, how you’re doing it. I just read a piece you recently published on LinkedIn where you state the following. “The only way to reach your potential is to evolve. The only way to evolve is to know who you are and what you represent.
There’s true beauty in reaching that moment of clarity because that’s when things get better for both you and your company.” To me, this is music to my ears. Brand clarity is what derive of my clients and in the end, I believe that every brand’s DNA can actually be described in one single word. So, Harley-Davidson could be seen as freedom, right? Aveline which I know you’re familiar with because you signed a petition where he was part of it. Aveline is all about transparency, right? What is one word … If you would have one word that could describe & Pizza, without putting you too much on the spot here, could you think of one word?
M Lastoria: Yeah. It’s a word I’ve used a few times today. It would be unity.
F Geyrhalter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s really nice. That’s very all encompassing. I think with everything you just said in the last 40 or so minutes, that encompasses everything. I guess, to finish this up slowly, here’s the big one. What does branding mean to you?
M Lastoria: I think, and I guess I sort of just said this a while ago, I think it truly is personalizing a commodity. It’s injecting a heart and a soul and a point of view into something that otherwise doesn’t have it.
F Geyrhalter: Beautiful. I could not agree more. Michael, where can our listeners and myself get a slice of the pie? Is & Pizza in expansion mode so we can all get our hopes up to see a store in our area soon?
M Lastoria: Yeah, we’re opening, like I said, our 36th shop in a couple of weeks here. We’re going to double in size in the next two years. Most of our growth will be on the east coast. Everywhere from Boston down through Miami. You can find us on social @AndPizza and me on @_Lastoria. I’m a little bit more visual than I am vocal. I am on Twitter, but mainly Instagram is the platform I prefer to use. First off, I just want to say to you, Fabian, congratulations on the book. I’m definitely going to be reading it now. I know it’s a really hard thing to do to put so many amazing thoughts that you have into words, words on paper and publish a book, so congratulations. I encourage all of the listeners to read it because you have incredible thinking on a lot of amazing topics. Just some of the things that you’ve sparked today for me even then have been great, so thanks for having me.
F Geyrhalter: That was really kind of you. I really appreciate it. This conversation was so inspiring to myself, and I’m sure to our listeners, on so many levels. I have to say people like you are the reason I work with entrepreneurs and why I love the world of branding. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your time, wisdom and energy, Michael.
M Lastoria: Thank you.
F Geyrhalter: And thanks to all for listening in. Hit the subscribe button, give the show a rating, and write a quick review if you did appreciate the show. The Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by Happiness Won, as in I won free pizza and not just one pizza. These two words seem to be difficult for an Austrian to differentiate. I will see you next time when we, once again, will be Hitting the Mark.