Alex Koons just might be the coolest “uncool” guy in the pizza business. Or is it the uncoolest “cool” guy?

Before he launched Hot Tongue Pizza in Los Angeles, he was playing keyboards and singing in rock bands while working as an audio engineer. He made his way onto PMQ’s May 2023 cover for his marketing chops and wildly entertaining Instagram Reels at Hot Tongue, formerly a vegan-only pizzeria that has since branched out to feature a more diverse menu. As PMQ described those Reels last year, “Koons and his team member, bewigged and outrageously clad, dance, prance, wiggle and twirl about to catchy tunes—some made famous by hip-hop or pop acts (think Fugees or the Backstreet Boys), and others, like ‘Pineapple On Pizza’ and ‘Ranch Dance, that Koons writes and records himself.”

That’s one reason why PMQ tapped Koons, who also hosts the popular Pie 2 Pie podcast, to speak at the upcoming Pizza Power Forum, taking place September 4-5 in Atlanta. In addition to serving on two panel sessions, he’ll address the topic, “Culture Is King: Attracting/Retaining Employees by Being Cooler Than the Competition,” in a solo presentation.

But as Koons explained in a recent interview with PMQ, “cooler” is, perhaps, a somewhat misleading term.

“A lot of what culture is,” he said, “is all the uncool things.”

“To build a strong culture, you need to have systems and processes in place,” Koons added. “Everyone wants to think, you know, ‘It’s gonna be a cool place where we can do this and that, and it’s gonna be really chill, and we’ll listen to music.’ All of those things are great, but you [start with] the uncool stuff: the checklists, the processes, the policies—all the things you hated when you were younger. You may think that’s Walmart-y or super-McDonald’s. Well, those organizations got that big because of their policies and their processes.”

Koons said he and his staff have the time to make Hot Tongue’s trademark Reels because they get all their real work done efficiently. And that is because Koons established his systems and processes from the start.

“If you have one unit or 15, that should be your foundation,” he noted. “So if anything goes wrong or someone has questions, your expectations are laid out, you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re supposed to be doing it.”

Koons is a firm believer in written checklists—cleaning procedures, opening and closing the store, portioning of toppings—all laminated and placed on the restaurant’s walls along with photos that illustrate what a perfectly topped and baked pizza should look like. “When you have that direction, that’s when you have a really incredible culture,” he said. “Everyone is happy. They know their job and enjoy their job. And if you’re good at your job…you’re always gonna have fun doing it. You’re gonna be able to make jokes and goof off because you did all your busy work. You know when to quiet down and just blaze through the two-hour rush and get those pizzas churning and burning. It’s really just about that foundation of policy and process, and I think that is what helps you build a great culture.”

“For any kind of culture—or any kind of relationship, long-term or short-term—you need clear expectations, accountability and trust. You give that to your people, and they give that back to you,” Koons added.

In other words, it’s not all brightly colored wigs and Napoleon Dynamite parodies. Behind the scenes, Koons has built a finely tuned operation with rules in place to ensure menu consistency, proficiency and high employee performance. “And all those things are free,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but once you’ve created the processes, the policies, the checklists and the pictures, everything is so much easier on you and everyone else. It’s quick and easy to change. I think it really helps any culture when there is clear focus and everyone knows exactly what they’re supposed to do and when they’re supposed to be doing it.”

Then the “cool” stuff happens. “We’re not just sitting around here making Reels all day,” he said. “It’s because the work has been done, we have a lull in time and expectations have been met. At the end of the day, everyone is here to get a paycheck. Yes, you build relationships that are beautiful, but to have those relationships, you have to have those systems in place. It’s not fair to you or to your team if it’s, like, ‘Everything is chill here, it is what it is.’ You do that, and you’re gonna get a culture that you didn’t create. It’ll create itself.”