&pizza has been on a tear. The D.C.-based chain of fast-casual pizza restaurants, which started with a single shop on H St. in 2012, opened its nineteenth store in the region last month. The company also ventured into Philadelphia and Baltimore this year, with their sights set on tackling the pizza capital of the world—New York City—in 2017.
But while &pizza’s acclaim could be credited simply to their arguably delicious pizza and other house products, the company has cemented itself in the District through strong sense of employee community, partnerships with local artists and creatives, a social mission that saw &pizza involved in the fight to raise the D.C. minimum wage, and, yes, by physically leaving its mark on a devoted group of employees and customers in the form of a (very permanent) ampersand tattoo.
We talked to &pizza co-founder Michael Lastoria about how he helped build a loyal “tribe” of employees and what advice he’d give to fellow entrepreneurs.
You’ve talked with us before about picking D.C. specifically to start &pizza. What is unique about D.C. to you as an entrepreneur?
D.C. is only just now uncovering sides of itself that have lay dormant for a long time. Because the city has been so dominated by politics for so long, nobody seems to have realized that D.C. is a culturally vibrant, diverse, artistically progressive town. This city is coming of age right now, right before our eyes, and it’s doing it in the way all the great cities in this country have done it – by uncovering and expanding itself, one neighborhood at a time. It feels great that &pizza is a part of that artistic, cultural, and gastronomical exploration.
How do you challenge yourself to think differently from others in the restaurant industry?
It’s not so much that we challenge ourselves to think differently. We do think differently. I truly believe that. Where others think about what the new hot up and coming neighborhood is to put their new store, we think about places with strong, longstanding sense of community that we can try and join. Where others think about how others perceive the brand, and shape themselves based on externalities, we focus on how we want to see our own brand. While others make decisions top down, we know that we’re nothing without our Tribe. We exist for them, and because of them, and we make sure they know they have a voice in shaping who we are and what we stand for.
The &pizza brand is more than just pizza. How did you foster a company culture that went beyond food?
Everything we’ve done, from the time we launched to today, has been about building something more than just a pizza shop. We want to serve up experience. We want to be a tribe of people connected by something greater than their place of work. We want our ampersand to stand for something more – a lifestyle, a culture, a belief system, a way of relating to the world – and we work hard to stay true to that mandate. Largely by making sure we listen to our Tribe. What do they want the brand to be about? Who are they as individuals? What makes them get up in the morning? When I launched, I decided that I wanted to make a brand that was so true to its employees, they would tattoo their allegiance on their own body, not because they were ‘lifers’ to the brand, but because they truly believed in what the symbol of our brand stands for. And we’ve done it.
How many ‘&’ tattoos have you done for employees?
Over 60 so far. We’ve also had around 20 guests get the tattoo. It’s not just a tribe thing – it’s an anyone who gets us and wants to show the love kind of thing.
You’ve also gotten involved in the recent push to raise the D.C. minimum wage. Why is that cause so important to you?
&pizza is built on the shoulders of its Tribe. We know that. We value them, and they know that, too. We give them a voice. We give them a say. We believe in their advancement. But all of that counts for nothing, if they can’t live on the wages we pay them. The minimum wage raise is the single clearest way to say to our Tribe, ‘we value you.’ And that’s important to me.
Be fearlessly weird. Stand for something.
Who is someone (a person, group or business) that you admire in D.C.?
The great food brands that came before us, and the newer brands that challenge to us to think differently and to act un-accordingly. Additionally, the residents of DC, many of whom came/stay with the daily purpose of creating positive change in the world. Also shout out to the thoughtful and thriving local art community, always pushing the visual boundaries of our brand and our city.
Is there a job you’ve had that has most influenced your career?
I don’t have some romantic mailroom story about a boss who pushed me to my limits but taught me the value of hard work. Life is about experiences, and who I am and where I am today are a testament to my entire lifetime of experiences.
What’s one piece of advice you would offer fellow entrepreneurs?
Everything I do is as an entrepreneur is about innovation. The market – every market – is saturated with mountains of the same; The only way to be successful is to stand for something that is new and different, and then execute on that vision. But it’s not easy; as more and more businesses catch on to the importance of innovation, novelty, and convenience, the very idea of innovation is being diluted. That is to say, purposeless innovation is exactly that. Innovation needs to serve some purpose, be striving toward some end. If not, consumers are smart enough to see it for what it is: a ploy. Be fearlessly weird. Stand for something. Stay out of the pizza game.
You’ve debuted in new cities this year and expanded into more full service restaurants with bar concepts. What can we expect from &pizza in 2017?
To grow our business from the inside. To expand our reach and preach the gospel of &pizza not only deeper within the city limits of the nation’s capital, but far beyond. We want to fight for social justice thoughtfully and respectfully; leading by way of example. To double-down on our people and stay true to our founding pillars.