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How Toppers Pizza Uses Culture As a True Point of Differentiation Within Crowded Pizza Segment
Backed by unwavering passion system-wide, Toppers is hoping to introduce 10 new franchisees to its growing family in 2017 alone.

Corporate culture can mean many things to a lot of people. It could boil down to the workplace atmosphere—be it a spacious open office plan, cramped cubicles with fluorescent lights or private offices with great cityscape views. It could also be something as simple as the camaraderie of birthday celebrations, the novelty of free snacks or the freedom of lax office hours.

However you choose to define it, corporate culture matters. According to a study done by Harvard Business Review, nearly 92 percent of employees firmly believe that defining their business culture would improve the overall value of the company. Another 50 percent said taking the time to establish and nurture a company culture could also influence productivity, creativity, profitability and growth rates.

But what makes a winning corporate culture? First, every successful company has a unique identity—a distinct set of characteristics that sets it apart from other organizations. This personality can give employees a sense of meaning, and it makes them feel like they are truly part of a family—not just a faceless business.

Toppers Pizza is one brand that does this particularly well. As the brand expanded steadily from its headquarters in Whitewater, Wisconsin, to its current 74 locations, it quickly became known for its irreverent brand voice built upon humorous slogans, fun delivery drivers and marketing programs tailored to its college student audience. Even more than that, Toppers was a company that people were proud to be a part of. Talk to any one of its managers, owners, driver or cooks, and they’ll all agree: Toppers is a brand fueled by uncompromising values. They respect each other. They’re powered by passion. They have an obsessive compulsion to give customers exactly what they want. They’re fulfilled by what they build. And, most importantly, they get that anything in life worth doing has to be fun, too.  

And the larger and more sophisticated Toppers gets—which increasingly attracts multi-unit franchise investors looking to expand—the more important it is to Scott Gittrich, Toppers’ founder and CEO, that the brand never lose sight of its unique culture.

“When I left Domino’s to start Toppers, I saw a place and a need for a great, made-from-scratch pizza with a more complex menu, but what we really dared to hope to achieve—and what’s come true—is that it would also be a special place for the people who worked there,” Gittrich said. “I’ve always wanted it to be more than a fast-food job and more than just a place where you dragged yourself to clock in.”

After first investing in the brand more than 20 years ago, Caro and Andy Johnson can personally attest to the brand’s dynamic culture. In fact, to say that Caro is a fan of her job would be a huge understatement—she has the Toppers logo tattooed on her back.

Caro and Andy opened the first Toppers franchise in Eau Claire, Wisconsin back in 1997. Andy attended the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater with Gittrich, and he ended up driving for the young company before Gittrich could even afford to pay his drivers. At one point, Gittrich talked to Andy about opening a Toppers of his own. With that, Andy and Caro borrowed $10,000 from their grandparents, bought old equipment from Gittrich and funded the rest of the store on credit cards.

Years later, the two have become an integral part in making Toppers what it is today, helping to craft the mission statement and standards set in each location currently in operation. And it’s that same culture that drives Toppers today that continues to fuel the Johnsons and everything they do.

“Toppers has always been about culture. It creates this connectedness among the people that run the company and it creates a shared vision—something we all work for every day. For us, it’s the excitement of being forward looking. It’s a feeling we all share—whether you’re a driver in Omaha, a franchisee in Charlotte or a pizza maker in Minneapolis,” Caro said. “The Toppers culture creates a foundation that allows us to put a bunch of things in sight and make them happen. When you have that group of people who feel so strongly about a brand, it feels like anything is possible. But more than that, it makes our jobs funs.”

Father and son business partners Jon S. and Jon P. Crowe were drawn to Toppers for the same reason. The two have been with the brand for six years, and they own three locations and manage about 75 Team Members throughout Nebraska.

“My dad came to me with this crazy idea to go out to Whitewater to check out a place he found on the Internet,” said Jon P., speaking of their first encounter with Toppers. “At the time, I couldn’t really imagine myself running a pizza shop, but I thought I’d go with him to keep him a little grounded. But, now, here we are.”   

Jon P. believes that much of their ongoing success can be attributed to the core values that fuel the entire Toppers franchise system.

“Every day we’re impressed by the people and the attitudes driving this brand. I love that our No. 1 core value is integrity. Everybody here has integrity, and no amount of money, marketing or branding can buy that,” Jon P. said.

In the years ahead, Gittrich believes that it’s Toppers’ culture that will continue to be one of its true differentiation points as it eyes continued growth throughout the country. Backed by this unwavering passion, Toppers is hoping to introduce 10 new franchisees to its growing family in 2017 alone. So far, the brand is already well on its way to achieving that goal—after a successful 2016 filled with climbing sales and the signing of three multi-unit deals, representing 41 new store commitments, Toppers is on pace to add 14 new units in 2017.

“The people who thrive with Toppers want something they can connect to. They want to do something that’s special. They want to have that real place to go to work and do something that matters. They want a great pizza place that their kids can be proud of,” Gittrich said. “Work should be something you’re passionate about—something you pop out of bed for because you’re that excited to start a new day. Toppers people have that feeling every single day.”