October 16, 2017

With a meaty investment in consumer-facing tech and fast-rising unit growth, Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza thinks it can challenge the biggest pizza brands after doubling in size over the last three years.

“We have big, hairy, audacious goals—we want to be a national pizza brand,” said Toppers Vice President of Marketing Scott Iversen, a former Domino’s employee. “We think between 2,000-3,000 stores can fit domestically in the U.S. … [and] we need to keep kicking ass, winning one market at a time and that growth will continue to be there.”

Even with so many competitors, including big-spending behemoths like Domino’s, Iversen said the privately-held brand is in the ideal position to realize its sky-high ambitions.

“It’s a good time to be in the pizza business, particularly in the better pizza category,” he said. “We’re having record company growth, and are going to open about 17 stores this year.”

With most of its units in Wisconsin and neighboring Midwestern states, for the most part, Toppers is doubling down on its home markets, while also expanding beyond to states such as Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, among others.

In such a crowded restaurant category, the pie itself may not be expanding as much as market share migrates between competitors. Iversen said they see Pizza Hut and Papa John’s as particularly vulnerable given the strength and eye-popping growth numbers at Domino’s.

“What they have done in the last six years, in particular, is nothing short of remarkable,” he added.

Smaller mom-and-pop brands are also bleeding share as customer-facing technology and online ordering becomes increasingly crucial for pizza brands.

As it works to build a proprietary point of sale and online ordering platform, Toppers estimates 70 percent of its transactions come from online/mobile sources, which is in the neighborhood of the category’s most advanced players.

In addition, it has recently tested third-party delivery service Grubhub at a number of its locations, with Iversen adding “that’s where customers are being trained to go,” but said the frequency and check averages weren’t as high as through their own online channels. The reason, he said, is that its proprietary channels are more appealing and allow the company to do a better job upselling and suggesting new or different menu items.

As the company continues adding units, it is maintaining its ratio of 25 percent company-owned stores, which has provided financial fuel for the franchisor, while also keeping that frequently cited “skin in the game” with its franchisees.

As some of the newer, fast-casual pizza players have struggled recently, Iversen said he expects the shakeout to continue, but praised the boom’s overall boost to pizza, including increasing its lunchtime daypart.

“Pizza has always been more of a dinner and late-night daypart, so we’ll see how those guys make it primarily being a lunch play,” he said. “If you have a differentiated brand and model as we do, we think the future is unlimited.”

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