Ones to Watch | BY LYNNE MILLER
Targeting young singles has always been the strategy at Toppers Pizza. While the top national pizza chains actively court families, Toppers opens restaurants near college campuses, stays open until 3 a.m. every day and cultivates a fun, friendly image.
Scott Gittrich had always lived in college towns and was a young man himself when, in 1991, he opened the first Toppers in Champaign, Illinois, home of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gittrich, who cut his pizza teeth working at Domino’s Pizza while in college, planned to succeed by offering fresher, tastier food, faster delivery, and friendlier service.
“I loved working for Domino’s, but when you get to be the size they are, they go after a huge market,” Gittrich says. “It’s homogenized.”
Gittrich knew he was entering a mature, some would say tired, segment of the quick-serve industry. To set Toppers apart, the company developed a menu that features more than standard pizza. Offerings include Buffalo wings, quesadillas, grinders, and the company’s signature “Topperstix” a line of cheesy bread sticks in a variety of flavors. The breadsticks have a cult following and are included in about 60 percent of all orders, Gittrich says.
House pizzas put a fresh spin on a dish that’s been around forever. The taco pizza and baked potato pizza are among the top sellers. Other choices include the Cool C-B-R, a chicken-bacon-ranch pie with mozzarella, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and the Gyro Topper, which features seasoned gyro meat with cucumber sauce topped with mozzarella, feta cheese, onions, and tomatoes. The “build your own pizza” option lets customers choose from more traditional toppings.
Developing an unconventional menu has paid off. The nontraditional dishes and house pizzas generate the lion’s share of business. Traditional pizzas and sodas make up just 30 percent of sales, Gittrich says.
Everything is prepared fresh in each store’s kitchen—pizza dough and sauce are made from scratch and the vegetables are hand cut at the stores.
The unusual fare has helped the chain establish a unique image in the markets it serves. “People perceive us as distinctive,” Gittrich says.
Being open late is also central to the company’s image. At first, Toppers stayed open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights only. A couple of years after opening the first store, Gittrich decided to stay open late every day of the week. It didn’t take long for people to know whom they had to call for a midnight—or post-midnight—snack.
“We wrapped our image in that,” Gittrich says. “We didn’t have to advertise our hours. Everybody knows Toppers is a late-night place.”
The chain’s regular customers appreciate having a pizza place that’s open even when most people are sleeping. Gittrich estimates the stores near college campuses probably make 50 percent of total sales after 9 p.m. Even stores that aren’t near campuses see strong sales after midnight.
“It’s not easy to do,” he says. “We have competitors that close at 11 o’clock at night. Stores are buzzing with activity. We might have six to eight drivers still on the road.”
It’s not an easy time to be in the pizza business. Like other chains, Toppers has felt the impact of rising prices for cheese, flour, and gasoline. The company raised menu prices 12 to 14 percent in January, and the increases have had an impact. While same-store sales continue to grow, the rate of growth has slowed, Gittrich says.
Still, Gittrich believes Toppers is in a better position to weather the weak economic conditions than the pizza chains known for low prices.
Early in Gittrich’s career, Toppers got involved in price wars among competing pizza restaurants in town. It was a bruising experience, and the Toppers in Champaign had to close down in the mid-1990s. “We have avoided price wars since then,” Gittrich says. “Every mistake I was making in Champaign, I swore I wouldn’t make the same mistakes in Whitewater.”
Toppers doesn’t try to be the cheapest place in town. The average check is around $16.50, Gittrich says. Sales per store average $930,000, higher than the industry average.
Carryout and delivery orders generate the majority of sales.
The company is growing through franchising. Up to 13 new stores are expected to open in the next 15 months or so. The initial franchise fee, $30,000 for the first franchise, may be reduced to $15,000 for an experienced Toppers restaurant operator who needs less training.
Most prospective franchisees don’t need to be enlightened on the Toppers concept. Many are former customers who love the food and the company’s culture. “Most existing franchisees come to us and say, ‘I ate your pizza when I was in college,’ ” Gittrich says. “They’re fanatics.”