Michael Lastoria is a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur and employee advocate whose success is attributed to four core principles. Those guiding pillars helped to build &pizza, a growing fast-casual dining choice in the northeast that is challenging industry norms and customs. Since opening in 2012, &pizza has stuck to their moral compass, innovative marketing efforts and design aesthetics. The result? A thriving community of both employees and consumers pledged to inclusivity, fairness and damn good pizza.
Tell us about your background and why you chose to start &pizza?
I’m a serial entrepreneur; I’ve always been in the business of starting businesses. Each new business I’ve started has been built on four core principles: design-driven, culture-centric, brand-led, and, most importantly, morally sound. &pizza is the manifestation of those four mandates. Despite being one of the larger employers in the U.S., the restaurant industry has a terrible track record with respect to how employees are treated. &pizza was created to be the example of how companies not only can but should, do better in terms of how workers are treated. There was also an opportunity in terms of food quality. Pizza has been dominated by four huge companies for years, but there was a window to introduce something new in terms of how pizza is made. The ingredients we use and the level of care that goes into each pie was a way to stand out.
What major challenges did you have to overcome as an entrepreneur?
Every step of the process — from effectively curating culture, to raising funding, to establishing our point of differentiation, to landing on a clearly defined set of values and aesthetic, to the ultimate task of scale — was a challenge that required overcoming. Moving between industries also presented challenges. I never owned a restaurant before, I had to figure out how to run the operations and I had to deal with a failed partnership. At the same time, there was an advantage to jumping from industry to industry, because I wasn’t bound by previous experience. That means you have to learn, retroactively.
What defining characteristics make &pizza a Challenger?
We are determined to change the standard industry experience and benchmarks. We make each and every shop culturally relevant — there’s no boilerplate shop experience. We use a text-based platform to facilitate all communication with our employees and our guests. We designed a pizza company to look nothing like a pizza company. We democratize decision-making; that is, we let our people do what feels authentic and create policy around that. We aim to scale internationally without falling into the trappings of an industry leader. And we pay our employees a fair wage and we’re committed to the Fight for $15 movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you and how will it impact the future of marketing?
The first is direct communication with consumers. This is not a new wave – it’s been going on since the advent of social media – but brands are all still trying to figure out how to harness it. At &pizza, we’re striving to figure out how to respect the individual and speak to the individual authentically. How to change the conversation and expectations around what great service can be. Adapting to the ever-changing demand for transparency and not burying our customers’ trust beneath our business goals, and integrating individual and large-scale feedback into our experience.
"Encourage them to be their true selves, not conform to whatever image we had to present."
The other is galvanizing your employees to be passionate about social issues — and I think we’re leading the way in this area. I decided, when starting &pizza, to respect our employees. Pay them a living wage. Give them a voice in shaping the company and in shaping their experience as employees. Employ a strict no ceiling policy, so that they may ascend as high as their will and talents take them. Encourage them to be their true selves, not conform to whatever image we had to present. But more than that, I was determined to make our employees feel excited about being a part of our brand. They are our foundation, the literal face of our brand, and if they’re not excited about us, who will be?
What are the biggest changes in your industry and how are you staying ahead of them?
Off-premise sales, rent costs, and labor headwinds are changes. However, we tend to be out front in terms of industry innovation given our youth, lack of traditional experience, and outside-the-box thinking. Food and fast casual are growing in monster numbers. But our foundation – our tribe, our individually-designed shop experience, our aesthetic sense, our brand experience, our technology and, ultimately, our food – separates us from the pack.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
All of our communication is text-based, so we’ll be in text-to-order capabilities soon. We’re also pushing forward on non-traditional growth, meaning non-traditional shop experiences. We’ve opened our first cube concept, essentially a pizza kiosk, in D.C.’s Union Station, and we’re working on a new mobile commissary production concept.
We’re also being more proactive about embracing Internet culture and being proactive to it. For example, recognizing a Georgetown University student eating one of our pizzas in the background of a CBS News broadcast of Michael Cohen’s congressional hearing and turning it into a viral moment. Or live-tweeting episodes of Game of Thrones’ final season.
Tell us about the big learning moments you’ve had along your career path?
"..people don’t just want to see brands take a stand on social issues, they expect them to do so."
The most important lesson I’ve learned – and the one that helps me sleep well at night – is to work towards incrementally improving quality instead of chasing dollars or quantity. I sold my first company when I was 26 years old, but the money didn’t make me happy. I’m as interested in new experiences as I am fulfillment, so I jumped into an area in which I had no experience: the pizza industry. Because pizza was new territory for me, I’m constantly learning on the fly and evolving as the company does the same.
I also learned the importance of being a values-based brand and what accompanies that. We’re living in a time where people don’t just want to see brands take a stand on social issues, they expect them to do so. You have to be willing to stand tall on those issues.
What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?
I don’t like to speak about my traits as a leader, but if I’ve learned anything in building &pizza, it’s that my best decisions haven’t been my decisions at all — they’ve come from listening to our people.
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
Don’t start a business to make money, start a business with clearly defined, admirable aspirations. Don’t start a company because it’s a popular thing to do. The world does not need your version of someone else’s idea. The worlds need new ideas, new inspiration, and all of your weirdness so be fearless about it.