By Corinne Watson
When asked why he started his company, &pizza co-founder Michael Lastoria gives a simple yet heavy answer:
“To make an impact.”
Fueled by the motivation to be an example of how companies “not only can be better, they can do better,” says Michael, “We are a human company. Powered by our people. We lead with an ampersand for a reason; it stands for unity, for connectivity — and more recently for doing the right thing. It’s our culture. Our tribe. We exist to serve them, to use our platform, our voice, to enact change on key social issues that impact our people and communities.”
Despite being one of the larger employers in the U.S., the restaurant industry has a questionable track record with respect to how employees are treated. &pizza pays employees an above-average salary, has options for health- and diet-conscious eaters, and builds community in restaurants with events — specifically the yearly Pi Day, where couples can even get married in the store as part of the celebration.
Like many other pizza startups, &pizza is changing the way pizza is sold and consumed.
Like &Pizza, these startups are usually backed by a philosophy around one of both of these things:
- Accessibility — both in terms of availability (mobile pizza shops, pizza delivery) and by allowing people with varying dietary restrictions to indulge as well (vegan pizza, gluten-free pizza)
- Sustainability — Combating food waste, using locally-sourced ingredients, pledging to recycle/compost
No matter the mission, pizza startups have received a lot of attention from investors. &Pizza has raised over $25m in funding since 2017 and is among a long list of startups who are in the public eye after raising decent amounts of capital.
So, why are pizza startups getting so much attention? And how can you get your own slice of the pie?
It’s not a secret recipe. In fact, it is a crafted approach to marketing around the country’s favorite food.
Why The Pizza Space Is So Interesting
There are a number of things that baby-boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) may find confusing.
- Technology — AI, machine learning, even modern-day cell phones are vastly different than the ways that people interacted with each other in the past, and
- Relationships — the way that people interact, fueled by the above technology (who needs snail mail anymore?), and
- The things we spend money on — gone are the days of buying fine China and ornate furniture. Now, consumers are all about spending money on non-tactile experiences, like vacations, education, fitness, and dining.
In their 2018 Dining Trends Survey, Zagat reported that diners eat out on average 4.9 times a week. At an average cost of $36.40 per person, that is $178.36 a week that can end up in a restaurant’s pocket.
These numbers are a bit higher than in previous years, especially during the recession of 2007-2009. Pair that with the fast-paced society of today (why spend precious time crafting a meal when you can zip through a drive-thru?), and the pizza industry seems ripe for anyone who wants a slice of business.
The amount of sales in the restaurant and food industry continues to rise year over year.
Interesting Pizza Startups: These Companies are Changing the Pizza Game
It would take ages to list out every pizza company out there.
- We have the known big-box delivery and take-out shops like Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and Little Caesar’s.
- There are also the well-known sit-down varieties like California Pizza Kitchen, CiCi’s Pizza, and Chicago’s Rosati’s.
- We can’t forget about the local shops as well, which vary depending on the geography of where you’re finding your slice of pie.
But the past decade or so has given rise to the up-and-comers: the pizza startups that are grabbing the hearts and taste buds of millennials everywhere.
So what are these pizza startups, and where are they located? Let’s dig in.
After first opening in 2012, &pizza’s footprint now spans to 36 locations in six states:
- New York,
- Florida, and
Built with a “slice of social consciousness”, the team behind &pizza was an early advocate for the $15 minimum wage in New York. In addition, they use conscious ingredients like organic dough, non-GMO produce, non-MSG ingredients, and offer gluten-free and vegan options.
Perhaps one of the most interesting approaches to community-building can be seen from the events &pizza puts on annually around Pi Day — March 14th. Pizza-loving lovers can get married for free in several &pizza locations on the special day.
Spotlight: Michael Lastoria, CEO + Co-Founder, &pizza
Having sold his first company at 26, Michael Lastoria is no stranger to entrepreneurship.
However, he was new to the pizza industry — which he saw as an advantage. “I wasn’t bound by previous experience. What we sometimes refer to as the ‘inexperience advantage’. That means you have to learn, retroactively,” Michael said in an interview with Pizza Need.
Source: &pizza Instagram
When asked what challenges he faced while building &pizza, Michael reports, “Every step of the process — from operations, raising funding, to establishing our point of differentiation, to landing on a clearly defined set of values (and living those values), to the ultimate task of scale — was a challenge that required overcoming.”
One thing is certain: Michael loves pizza.
“My ideal form of relaxation would be some kind of Anthony Bourdain meets The Motorcycle Diaries show: cultural immersion by way of motorcycle road trips to exotic unexplored lands in search of great pizza. I think that properly sums up my obsession.” – Michael Lastoria, CEO + Co-Founder, &pizza
With plenty of dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan options geared towards the health-conscious consumer, Oath Pizza is one of many pizzerias that appeal to a large variety of pizza-lovers.
What makes them a bit different, though, is the lengths they went to to become so accessible. They are just one of a small amount of restaurants that offer Certifiably Humane toppings, and their special trade secret thin avocado oil crust “is not only delicious, but it is lighter for a pizza you (and your family) can indulge in and still feel good about,” says Stacia Colburn Hayes, VP of Marketing.
In 2014, Oath Pizza’s founder won the “Best of the Best” award at the International Pizza Expo competition, and in 2015, Oath Pizza opened their first restaurant.
When asked about Oath Pizza’s roots, Stacia paints a picture of rapid growth.
“We started in a small seaside shop on Nantucket serving personal pizzas on our award-winning avocado oil crust that’s topped with thoughtfully sourced ingredients.”
That small shop quickly expanded from just four locations to “over 40 in two years, and we’re just getting started,” says Stacia.
Spotlight: Stacie Colburn Hayes, VP of Marketing, Oath Pizza
So what makes Oath Pizza different?
“Beyond the avocado oil-based, cheesy goodness, we are a socially-conscious, purpose-driven company with goals to inspire happiness in our teams, guests and communities every single day and to make a positive impact on the world.
We are genuine contributors to the communities we serve and committed to making decisions that contribute to a stronger environment.
We use humanely-raised, GMO-free proteins, source sustainable packaging and eliminated the use of plastic straws in our restaurants.”
Before Oath Pizza, Stacie believed all pizza was the same. “Made cheaply, but deliciously and an indulgence to be enjoyed on cheat days or to kick off the weekend.”
Now, that dialogue has changed. “With the right sourcing practices, ingredients, partners, and teams in place, you can have both. Not only do our customers make an impact on something much bigger by eating with us, but Oath Pizza is the pizza to enjoy any day of the week.”
Automated technology has touched just about every aspect of the American lifestyle.
And now, with Zume Pizza, robots can swap the “bleep, bloop” with a “mama mía”.
Each pizza from Zume is made with the help of patented pizza-cooking robots. While a chef prepares the pizza, robots take over once the creation needs to be put in the oven.
In November of 2018, Zume Pizza company raised $375 million from Softbank and was valued at $2.2 billion.
Robots are involved in the entire pizza-making process at Zume Pizza.
Source: Zume Pizza website.
And it’s not just the robots that make Zume Pizza different than traditional pizza shops. They also don’t have brick-and-mortar stores. Pizzas are created and delivered all on mobile kitchens, which means that pizza can be made on-the-go which makes the ordering process that much easier.
“Going to market without brick-and-mortar has been great for us, and we’ve been able to pass some of that advantageous cost structure along to customers with better ingredients and lower prices,” said Rhonda Woolf, president of Zume Pizza. “We are now competitive with most of the big national chains, and we’re really proud of that.”
Right now, Zume Pizza only serves the Bay Area in California (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland), but may expand in the future.
Zume Pizza has also found a way to give back to their community. Every month, Zume Pizza pairs up with a local chef to create a special recipe pie in the Pies with Purpose program. 10% of the proceeds from that pizza will go to a charity that the chef picks.
Founded in Seattle, Washington in 2008, MOD Pizza is one of the most well-known pizza startups. With over 400 locations in the United States and UK, Mod Pizza places a focus on it’s employees, paying a living wage to all employees and works to build the community around each location.
In a Chipotle-style lineup, Mod Pizza offers customers a build-your-own personal pizza with unlimited toppings. The pizza takes less than three minutes to cook.
MOD Retail was voted one of the best 20 retail workplaces of 2015 by Fortune — and for good reason.
The day before official Opening Day of every MOD Pizza location is called Bridge Day. On this day, customers receive 50% off of their order, and all proceeds go to the MOD Bridge Fund. In times of employee need, like disasters and life hardships, MOD Pizza employees (the “Mod Squad”) can use the funds.
“The Bridge Fund is a great example of MOD values in action. It is who we aspire to be – a place that treats people like family and helps them during their time of need. Every MOD employee has the option to donate a portion of their paycheck to the Bridge Fund – even as little as a dollar a month. It’s MOD’s helping MODs.” — MOD Pizza blog
MOD Pizza doesn’t like to be called a pizza restaurant. They claim to be a platform to serve people — “pizza-as-a-platform” — and displays a continuous, conscious effort to build and help the communities of each store location.
From the MOD website:
“What does “pizza as a platform” mean? Well, it can mean a lot of things. From extending employment opportunities to those oftentimes overlooked to supporting causes like suicide prevention and feeding kids struggling with hunger, we are always looking for ways to impact communities through the work we do.”
Source: MOD Pizza Website
MOD Pizza expects to grow even more. After announcing a $160 million funding round in May of 2019 ($335 million to date), MOD Pizza plans to expand to more than 1,000 locations within the next five years.
Since 2011, Blaze Pizza is similar to Mod Pizza with a personalized, build-your-own approach. Diners can select between eight “Signature Pizzas”, or create their own with a variety of over 40 toppings.
Blaze also offers a Keto-friendly crust at all of their locations, in addition to cauliflower crust and vegan cheese.
Blaze Pizza partnered with the (RED) foundation in June 2017, renaming its classic red vine pizza to (RED) vine pizza. Blaze donated $1 to the (RED) foundation for every (RED) vine pizza sold during that month, with proceeds going to help HIV/AIDS research.
Founded by the team behind Wetzel’s Pretzels, Elise and Rick Wetzel, the pizza restaurant has collected a number of high-profile investors, most notably professional basketball player Lebron James.
Source: Feast Magazine
In September 2019, Rick Wetzel reported to Yahoo Finance that they are ready to take on their largest competition — Domino’s. With this shift, Blaze will need to accomodate family-style pizzas (instead of single-serve), and focus more on the carry-out and delivery experiences instead of just dine-in. The company also plans to go public within the next three years.
Blaze Pizza plans to open 50 restaurants this year, bringing its total close to 400.
There is one thing that differentiates Slice from the other pizza startups on this list.
They don’t make pizza. They are a tech company.
Slice was created by Ilir Sela in 2010 to help small pizza shops compete with behemoths like Domino’s and Papa John’s.
Ilir comes from both a pizza-making and tech background — his father and grandfather ran a slice shop in Brooklyn, and Ilir majored in computer science.
The pricing is easy for pizzerias to understand: Just $1.95 per order, no matter the size.
Customers in over 8,500 cities nationwide can order from the Slice app, available on the iOS and Google Play app stores.
Slice now offers its service in 8,500 cities nationwide and has driven $600 million in sales for more than 12,000 pizzerias. That number is more than double the amount of Domino’s locations — which really puts Slice ahead, said Ilir in an August 2019 interview with Forbes.
“We’re double the size of Domino’s in terms of locations. We’ve invested millions of dollars in technology and marketing in terms of our product. The moment a small business joins Slice, they get access to millions of dollars of technology and development. This is past the quality of a Domino’s mobile app.”
Slice also benefits from Ilir’s background in technology.
For example: Ordering pizza can often be a clunky experience, but with Slice, customers can place an order with just three taps.
So far, the Slice app has raised $20 million from VCs.
Thousands of Americans start a new business every year, and thousands of Americans eat pizza every day.
Our world is constantly changing, and businesses are finding ways to get people the things they want (like pizza) when they want it.
- People expect fast delivery. How can they make it even faster?
- People want to make a social impact with philanthropy. How can a pizza restaurant match the growing conservational mindset while also turning a profit?
- People are continuing to make more health-conscious decisions. How can we turn the somewhat-traditionally-unhealthy food that is pizza into something that can make people feel good about their eating?
The pizza startups of today and the future have to answer these questions and more. But one thing is certain — I think these startups have the right leadership and plans in place to make it happen. I’m excited to see where these brands go next.
Do you have an idea for a new pizza startup? Let us know!