The Lost Boys: Building a small-town pizza empire in the Deep South
This pair of best buddies from the Mississippi Delta made their pizza dreams come true—and no one’s more surprised than they are.
Brooks Roberts (left) and Preston Lott started a pizzeria in their home town of Indianola, Mississippi (population: 12,000) just to fill a local niche. Little did they know at the time that it would lead to a 13-store franchise empire that’s still growing.
Photos by Daniel Perea
In the little Mississippi Delta town of Indianola, the summers can be sweltering, and the mosquitoes are big and mean. As youngsters, best friends Brooks Roberts and Preston Lott played in its broad, flat, green spaces, gazed up at the night sky illuminated by sudden, brilliant flashes of heat lightning, and dreamed of the bigger world waiting beyond the cotton fields and catfish ponds.
But once they made it out of the Delta—as far away as sunny St. Croix, in Roberts’ case—all they really wanted to do was go back home and make pizza for a living.
Now, just 10 years after they returned to Indianola and launched a modest little shop on the town’s main strip, Roberts and Lott have become restaurant magnates of a sort, the laid-back, good-old-boy masterminds behind a fast-growing franchise company called Lost Pizza Co., now with 13 locations in three southern states and more on the way. And, as both men will be quick to tell you, no one’s more surprised by their success than they are.
Lost Pizza’s fare has been singled out as the “Best Pizza in Mississippi” by Mississippi Magazine for the past three years in a row.
Unlikely Pizza Impresarios
At first glance, Roberts and Lott seem unlikely pizza impresarios. Both are self-taught artists—Roberts paints in a blues-influenced folk-pop style, often using old barn wood instead of canvas, while Lott has a gift for turning random junk into found-art showpieces. As students at Mississippi State University, both men were poised for careers in agriculture, largely to make their parents happy. “I got a degree in plant genetics, so I did cotton research for a few years, but I knew I didn’t want to do that forever,” Roberts says.
Lott earned his degree in poultry science. “I worked in egg production,” he recalls. “I made it, like, six months.”
But Lott came from a restaurant family—his parents still own Pea-Soup’s Lott-a-Freeze, a longstanding Indianola spot for burgers, po-boys, fried catfish and hamburger steaks—and the two buddies grew up in the eatery. “Even in college and after college, I worked in restaurants, and I loved being in the kitchen,” Roberts said. “We always dreamed about owning our own restaurant. We used to take our friends to Pea-Soup’s late at night—usually after a long night of probably drinking too much—and go in the kitchen and whip up something for our buddies. And then, the next morning, Preston’s dad would want to kill us because we’d made such a mess.”
Despite intense competition from multiple James Beard Award-winning restaurants in town, Lost Pizza has been doing booming business in Oxford, Mississippi.
Not long after graduating college, Roberts slipped off to St. Croix, where he captained a boat for the Cane Bay Dive Shop. When Lott came to visit him, they ended up at a local beach bar and pizza joint called the Lost Dog Pub and, as they reveled in the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, began rekindling an old dream of launching their own pizzeria. “Lost Dog had signs they had collected from other restaurants and bars over the years that had been destroyed by hurricanes,” Roberts says. “They had a collection of all this random stuff all over the walls, and we really liked the feel of the place. And we liked the name, so we just kind of put our spin on that and named our [future restaurant] Lost Dog Pizza Company.”
At the time, it was still just a dream, but when Lott learned that the building next door to Pea-Soup’s was for sale, it felt like a sign. “I thought, you know, we’ll make them an offer, and if it works out, I’ll pack up and move home, and we’ll do it,” Roberts says. “I think Preston called me the next day and said, ‘Pack your bags, we’re opening the restaurant.’ So my wife and I packed up, moved back to Mississippi and started work.”
Thanks to the pop-art decor created by Lost Pizza’s co-owners, customers can easily become engrossed by their surroundings while waiting for their pizzas.
Ready to Launch
Lost Dog Pizza Company opened on Indianola’s busy Highway 82 in 2007. Best known as the hometown of blues legend B.B. King and a community of about 12,000 souls, Indianola hardly seems like the launching pad for a pizza empire. “It’s a very small town,” Roberts says. “Everybody thought we were crazy. But we felt like it was really underserved. Everybody always complained about not having a good pizza restaurant. And it’s a big farming community, surrounded by a lot of smaller towns with people who all come to Indianola to go out to eat and do their shopping.”
After attending various food shows and fine-tuning their recipes, the young restaurateurs quickly learned the pizza making craft and, just as important, instinctively knew how to create a vibe. Passersby on their way to somewhere else can’t help but notice the antique vehicles parked in the restaurant’s lot, including a clunky blue pickup with the Lost Pizza logo and an old yellow hippie van festooned with random stickers, flowers and a window panel that depicts The Beatles.
Inside, customers soak up the bluesy-artsy ambience and place their orders at the counter for loaded signature pies like The Kujo and The Otis as well as a chicken-and-bacon number called The Lucille (named for B.B. King’s guitar) and the vegetarian Happy Hippie. The menu also features a few sandwiches, such as the meatball-packed Mee-Maw 2.0, along with wings and even hot tamales, a Mississippi Delta specialty.
With its tasty pies, blues-themed memorabilia and folk art, the restaurant proved so popular that, within about a year of opening, Brooks and Lott began casting about for a second location. Not far away, the town of Cleveland, home of Delta State University, beckoned. “It’s a college town and a little bigger than Indianola, so we thought that was a good second step,” Roberts says. “We opened that store, and we were so overwhelmed, we realized pretty quickly that it’d be hard for us to open any more stores, because Preston was always in one store, and I was always at the other one.”
Fortunately, as the buzz spread, willing partners were not hard to find.
— Brooks Roberts, Lost Pizza Co.
The Complexities of Franchising
By 2010, Roberts and Lott began to immerse themselves in the challenge of franchising when a friend, John Mark Elliott, wanted to open a Lost Dog Pizza of his own in Tupelo, a mid-size Northeast Mississippi city and the birthplace of Elvis Presley.
“We knew if we were going to continue to grow, franchising was the path we needed to go down,” Roberts said. “We were so hands-on, and almost everything we make is from scratch every day. It’s just so labor-intensive. It was really hard for us to open more stores and be able to count on the staff to do everything the way we were doing it. John Mark put everything he had into opening that first store, just like we did, and we knew he would run it the same way we did. It would be his baby like it was our baby. We had to have someone like that—an owner-operator that’s going to be there every day to oversee it.”
But franchising is a complicated enterprise. For trademark purposes, they had to change their brand’s name from Lost Dog Pizza Company to Lost Pizza Co. (“We were bummed out to lose the dog, but we still put a little picture of a dog here and there to remember it,” Roberts says.) They brought in an attorney who specializes in franchise law to manage the legalities and chose their franchisees carefully, turning away those who seemed like the wrong fit.
They also built relationships with an equipment vendor and restaurant design team to ensure an optimized layout for each location, as well as a single POS provider, PDQ POS, that helps set up each store and track every location’s financials in real time, complete with nightly reports.
Meanwhile, ensuring consistency in the kitchen from store to store has been just as challenging. “That was one of the most complicated parts,” Roberts admits. “Preston is Italian, so he has a lot of family recipes that we used and tweaked a little bit as we grew. Not only did we want to protect our recipes, but we wanted to have consistency throughout our brand. So we had to find a company to package all the dry ingredients and distribute them to each of our locations so that everybody was using the exact same brands of seasonings, the exact same amounts, and doing everything exactly the way we were doing it. In the beginning, we didn’t have the volume and the movement to have our food distributors distribute that stuff for us, so we had to do it ourselves. We were running around every day with truckloads of stuff, taking it from location to location. As we grew, we were able to have the buying power and volume, so we could get our vendors to pick up our products and distribute them for us. That was a big growing pain.”
One of the newest Lost Pizza locations, which opened last fall in Oxford, Mississippi, has two stories with upstairs and downstairs patio seating.
Hetero Life Partners
Playing the Franchising Game
Lost Pizza Co. founders Brooks Roberts and Preston Lott never intended to get into the restaurant franchising business. In fact, after more than seven years of opening franchised operations with various partners, Lott says, “We’re still learning.” Here’s what they’ve figured out so far:
1. Work with experts. Franchise law is tricky, so don’t think you can figure it out on your own. Hire an attorney who specializes in it. Seek out vendors who have worked with franchises before so they can help you maintain efficient systems and processes.
2. Don’t hurry. Lott’s key piece of advice: Take it slow. “Make sure you know this is what you want to do,” Roberts adds. “It’s a totally different ball game from being in the kitchen every day.”
3. Choose your franchisees carefully. Look for people who share your passion and commitment to quality rather than those who are just looking for a moneymaking opportunity. Make sure they live in the town where the store is located and will work in their stores every day.
4. Create charts for portion control. Ingredient portioning charts will help minimize food costs and ensure consistency of product from one location to the next. “If you put just a little too much cheese on every pizza, at the end of the day it ends up costing a lot of money,” Roberts says. “Quantity control is important.”
5. Get involved in the community. Lost Pizza sponsors local youth sports teams and works with charities like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “It’s hard to stand out in a lot of markets, because there are already so many restaurants,” Roberts says. “We look for places where can create our little niche and become part of the community, not just another place on Food Row with the other 30 or 40 restaurants in town.”
But Roberts and Lott worked through the pain, researching new markets, scouting high-traffic locations and fielding offers from wannabe partners. “We’ve had lots and lots of people approach us, interested in franchising, but we’ve been really picky about who we will even consider,” Roberts says. “We want people who put their heart and soul in it the way we do, not just somebody who’s looking for a quick buck.”
As the chain expanded to other towns around Mississippi and then into Memphis, Tennessee, and Jonesboro, Arkansas, its reputation for great pies spread, earning “Best Pizza in Mississippi” honors from Mississippi Magazine for the past three years. Roberts and Lott still dream up new recipes, putting a Southern twist on their pizzas. One recurring winter special features chopped hot tamales and cheddar cheese, while a springtime special comes topped with fried green tomatoes, bacon and baby spinach.
And Roberts and Lott still provide their own decor for each Lost Pizza franchise store, taking random found objects and plain ol’ junk and creating a one-of-a-kind, eye-catching esthetic. In the upstairs section of the Oxford, Mississippi, location, customers quickly become engrossed with their surroundings as they waited for their food. Roberts’ own paintings, including a rendition of Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, adorn the walls alongside classic movie posters and all manner of oddities—one side of a rusted Ford Ecoline truck with a baby doll peering through the window; a large glass dining table inlaid with an assortment of oddly compelling bric-a-brac; toy airplanes suspended from the ceiling; and an old barber’s chair propped up in a corner.
And there’s plenty more where that came from. “We have a big warehouse full of it,” Roberts says. “We collected all this stuff even when we were kids. We always had an eye for junk. Anytime we’re on the road, we’re always looking out for antique stores, junk stores, flea markets. Anybody that has a bunch of junk in their yard, we’re going to knock on the door. Whenever we get ready to open a new restaurant, we’ll load up a few trailers and bring it out and just start putting stuff around the place and see what sticks. My wife was really excited when we opened our first restaurant, because it gave me a place to put all of my stuff.”
It’s all part of that funky Lost Pizza mystique, a reflection of its down-to-earth founders, who have remained best friends through all of the ups and downs of growing their company.
“It’s really weird,” Roberts says. “We live next door to each other, and our kids are best friends. We’re pretty fortunate in that we have this business relationship and can still maintain our regular friendship. I call him my hetero life partner. We do everything together.”
And both men still marvel at the success of Lost Pizza Co. “When we started, we didn’t know what would happen,” Lott says.
Brooks agrees, adding, “We were young, we didn’t have kids, we didn’t have a lot of bills. We just wanted a cool place in our hometown to eat pizza and have a couple of beers with friends and make a living off of it. That was our intention, and it just kind of went from there.”
Now they spend most of their time traveling from one store to the next and meeting with potential franchisees instead of slinging pies in the kitchen. But, as surprised as they are with the way things turned out, Roberts says, “I still love it. It’s definitely different from what I signed on for, but I don’t think we can complain. I still love it every day, and I can’t picture doing anything else.”