Last updated on June 7th, 2021 at 10:59 am
While many restaurants stand on shaky ground after 15 months of revenue losses, Toppers Pizza is coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic strong. The Whitewater-based quick-service pizza chain, with 65 corporate- and franchise-owned locations in 12 states, has seen double-digit sales growth for the past four consecutive quarters and expects that momentum to continue into 2022. Founder and chief executive officer Scott Gittrich says investments in technology and menu additions, such as gluten-free and vegan options, have primed the company to keep up with evolving consumer expectations. BizTimes reporter Maredithe Meyer caught up with Gittrich to talk about Toppers’ recent success.
What does investing in technology look like for Toppers?
“In the past five years, we’ve spent several million dollars to build our own point-of-sale, e-commerce, cloud-data system and completed rolling that out to the entire store footprint in the middle of 2020. We built this thing to scale using incredible architecture and technology. We can pull and change the e-commerce solution down to the store and down to even the individual customer. What that means is individual stores can set pricing or whatever, and it will populate directly to Toppers’ e-commerce site for the customers in their area, so it’s extremely powerful.
“We’ve continued to commit resources to technology by increasing our technology team (at the corporate headquarters) by about 30% in the last six months – just to pour it on, essentially. There’s no end to what kind of solutions we can bring to our customers and to our franchisees through these investments.
“In 2020, it was a lot about serving the customer in very specific ways relative to the COVID environment and just taking friction out of the system in every way that we possibly could. Today, a lot of our commitment has to do with our mobile platform and loyalty, and data for our franchise owners – so, being as efficient as we possibly can. And we’ve seen just incredible numbers. We look at ‘sales per person hour’ as a way to measure the impact of our technology. We’ve increased that efficiency – the sales that can be done per person in our restaurant – by 15 to 20% in the last year and a half. What’s happened during that time period is that all of our service metrics, or service times, have improved. Our Google scores have improved across the board. Our customers are saying, ‘Your service is better. We like everything better. We can see that you’re delivering faster.’ And we’re actually using fewer people in the restaurant to do that.”
What’s so important about efficiency?
“It impacts both (customers and team members). The customer is served better. It’s easier for team members. Our retention is up, our turnover is down, and our team member satisfaction is up because we’ve taken pieces out of the hands of team members executing those things manually and we’ve automated it – and it’s made their jobs easier. They get to focus on the customer more. Their jobs are more satisfying and less chaotic, the training is easier. It just pays off over and over.”
Does that put Toppers at an advantage amid industry-wide hiring challenges?
“The number of applications that we get in our restaurants is at an all-time low. … A year ago, in our 21 company-owned stores, we had close to 500 hourly team members. Last week, it was 429 team members. However, our delivery time, which is our key service metric, was better last week than it was a year ago, and our sales are up by a lot. That just shows that we can do what we do with fewer people.
“Still, you have to keep your people. And Toppers Pizza has been recognized as a culture business. Our core values lead the way. I believe that we’re better set up to retain team members because we have great leadership, training, good franchise systems, but mostly we run our business with our core values. … We pay well, we have good benefits. Our average hourly rate is higher than it’s ever been in history, but we’re happy to do it because we want to have the best people.”
What’s one key focus for the coming months?
“Now, we’re really ramping up our investment in store development. We’ve opened four restaurants in the past five or six months and plan to open several more this year, 10 to 14 next year, and 20 to 26 in 2023. So, a big place we’re focused on is taking this opportunity to grow the Toppers Pizza brand over the next few years.
“We’ve been rebuilding and innovating against our menu in some really fun ways in the past two years, and we’re committed to continue to do that. We’ve partnered with Madison-based Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Company to create three unique Toppers flavors of frozen custard and those are going to be tested at the end of May in four restaurants in Milwaukee, and we expect that to be rolled out company-wide by mid-summer.”