Top That! Pizza Tackles Build-your-own Model

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In a push to enter the small fast casual pizza segment, several chains have banked on sleek décor (Punch Pizza), healthy menu items (Pizza Fusion) and cutting-edge technology (Vapiano's). But of yet, nobody in the growing niche has nailed the build-your-own detail that has made concepts such as Chipotle so incredibly profitable.

Enter the new brainchild of restaurant marketing guru Lori Walderich, chief creative officer at IdeaStudio, and creator of new concept Top That! Pizza. She said the idea was born five years ago when she started making personal pizzas for her children, and thought, "Why can't restaurants do this on the spot?" "I eat lunch every day out," she said. "The choice is go to Subway, or a fast food burger joint … now someone can build a pizza the same way they build a sandwich," said Walderich, whose husband, Jeff, is co-founder.

How do you build a pizza like a sandwich? Unlimited toppings on an assembly line setup to let customers customize their pies, all offered at one price for as much as you want to pile on. That's right – 9-inch pizzas at the new concept $5.99, regardless of the meat, cheese or toppings loaded on top.

Though the price point may be QSR-friendly, Walderich says the concept is fast casual. For one thing, there's an elevated customer experience: Endless permutations of truly premium ingredients. The current Top That! menu allows guests to choose from three kinds of gourmet style crusts (white, multigrain and honey wheat) as well as nine sauces, including bold Italian red, basil pesto, creamy nada vodka, barbecue, Thai peanut, sweet Roma red, and angry Alfredo.

Top That! is the newest brand to join BBI's portfolio. The concept was founded by IdeaStudio's chief creative officer Lori Walderich and her husband Jeff.

Guests also can choose their toppings from more than 20 fresh vegetables, 10 meats and seven cheeses such as asiago, feta, gorgonzola, provolone, parmesan, sharp cheddar and pecorino romano.

Then there's the technology factor: Once the customer has made their selection, the pizza is assembled in full view and cooked in less than three minutes in a 550-degree oven.

The first location opened in Tulsa, Okla., two weeks ago. Just this week, Beautiful Brands International announced the concept's addition to its portfolio of brands, which includes FreshBerry, Rex's Chicken and Camille's Sidewalk Cafe.

Top That! Pizza and Beautiful Brands International will utilize BBI's organizational and support system to market and franchise the brand both in national and international markets. BBI's support includes product development, marketing, real estate, architecture, legal, franchise sales and other aspects of development.

BBI CEO and founder David Rutkauskas has big plans for the brand, which he thinks could spawn an entire new category.

"If we're out to the market first, we're the category creator, and everyone else is just a copycat," he said. Beautiful Beginnings Rutkauskas said he was sold on the concept within the first few minutes of Walderich's presentation to him more than a year ago. First, he believes it's a truly novel concept that could establish a new category. The sandwich assembly and quick-cook economics applied to pizza are new, but also rudimentary enough for people to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" Operations also are perfectly simplistic and suitable for the times -- for customers and potential franchisees alike. The price point, Rutkauskas reasons, is right on the money. Some operators may balk at a $5.99 price point for all-you-can-top pizza, including meat, and even some local vendors' products Walderich wants to bring in: She wants to do an Oktoberfest promotion, for example, featuring local bratwurst. But Rutkauskas points out that once customers add drinks and extras, they're at the fast casual $8 or $9 sweet spot.

Also in the sweet spot are the projected prices for store units. The original was built, appropriately, in the shell of an old Quiznos, already set up for assembly-line production. Rutkauskas said the hundreds of recently closed sandwich shops – 90 from Quiznos alone in the last few months – are prime targets to be remade as Top That!, with a buildout time of approximately 30 days and a price point of approximately $150,000.

"That's what's selling," he said. "The banks are still loaning $250,000, $300,000. They may not be doing million-dollar loans to mom and pops, but the average person with relatively good credit and money in the bank is able to get $150,000 to $300,000." Rutkauskas said the first franchisee is already looking at sites for expansion, which should be a barometer of the concept's expansion potential.

I'm sensing a lot of growth," he said. "If we get some pretty successful franchisees out there, it will be a game changer."

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