Fast-casual pizza is nothing new, but no one is doing it quite like &pizza—and Michael Lastoria, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based company, wouldn’t have it any other way. From branding its own beverages and snacks to crafting proprietary patterns for its ampersand-emblazoned swag, &pizza revels in breaking the mold while searing its brand and values into followers’ psyches.
“Our company is all about experience and connection,” says Lastoria, who’s known to dispatch roller-skating ambassadors across the nation’s capital and give away free tattoos to loyal customers. “We wanted to take one of our favorite pastimes and reinvent it, creating an urban, progressive and somewhat edgy experience, one where pizza is the focal point but serves as more—as a vehicle for connecting people who think differently.” And when it comes to thinking differently, &pizza leads by example.
Ripe for Disruption
The & brand communicates “our version of the truth,” says Lastoria, and carries its imprint to &snacks, &wine and &tea for a top-to-bottom branded experience.
With his shoulder-length locks and flowing beard, Lastoria looks like he ought to be tearing off guitar solos in a jam band. But don’t let the rock-star guise fool you—the man has a knack for free enterprise. Hailing from a tiny farm town in western New York, his rebellious streak solidified at a small liberal arts college in California, where he obtained a general economics and business degree, then submitted to a staid New York City sales job for six weeks just to save cash. Starting his first company, a marketing and media services firm, in the Big Apple at 22 was “my MBA by fire,” he says. “When you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. I was OK with failure, and my naivete helped. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. If I didn’t have those things, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.”
But it “wasn’t cool to be an entrepreneur” in 2002, he recalls. Before the Zuckerbergs of the world made headlines in hoodies, business remained a realm of shined shoes and sharp suits, both of which Lastoria needed to buy (along with a haircut) as he shopped the company around to buyers less than four years after its launch. At 25, he sold to a private equity group, leaving him with plenty of capital but still seeking a purpose. That purpose ended up being pizza.
Lastoria, a self-professed serial entrepreneur, admits to having a passion for design-focused, brand-led, morally sound businesses, and by 2010 he was incubating the idea for &pizza in his West Chelsea studio. “&pizza is a collection of my life’s work and experiences,” he says. “[In the marketing business] you spend a tremendous amount of time working on a client’s brand, but it doesn’t always work out the way you envision it. So I wanted to get into the product side of the business, create something that was meaningful and create it my way—to have a brand stand for something and be able to grow infinitely as a result of the work being put into it.”
That brand, he believed, would be the pizza shop of the 21st century. Why pizza? “It felt like an industry that was ripe for disruption, one that hadn’t changed from a product perspective,” Lastoria says. “In the quick-service arena, innovation was happening mainly through technology, and it was all about convenience and value—less about quality.” His solution: create a quick-service pizzeria for those who crave product quality, differentiation and unique flavor profiles.
&pizza takes an artisanal approach even with itslogoedgear, creating patterns and purchasing fabric for T-shirts while producing a twice-yearly fashion guide with the latest looks.
For two years, Lastoria and his team planned from the ground up, asking, “What does the pizza shop of the 21st century look like? How different would it be?” Thinking through branding, design, esthetics and product, &pizza chose assembly-line service to make the process more visual while allowing for personalization and customization. Then they picked the perfect &pizza breeding ground: Washington, D.C.
So what’s with the ampersand? Lastoria says the symbol perfectly embodied his budding brand—one that’s all about connecting people through pizza. “We love simplicity, but in terms of brand architecture, we knew that the brand could be larger than pizza. So, when we stamp the ampersand on something, it’s our version of what that product should be. That’s what the & brand represents: craft products, reimagined. It’s our version of the truth.”
&pizza thrives on four core values: celebrate oneness, keep it personal, make it fres and elevate everything. The company purposely reimagines the look and feel of pizza with a unique oblong shape and packaging, as well as thoughtful flavor combinations (fig marsala and strawberry balsamic make the menu), and a gourmet finishing station with fresh, unexpected add-ons such as tangy slaw and pickles.
The curated experience continues with &-branded products. The team rejected megabrand beverages and craft soda alike, instead developing its own flavors, like Burdock + Anise Root Beer and Pear + Fig Elixir. &wine was also born from a proprietary blend, custom-made for the pizzeria by a California vineyard; &snacks (cookies for dessert), &water and &tea (packaged in mason jars) complete the branded package. The only elements not &-branded, in fact, are local craft beers, rotated seasonally. “We want our guests to truly feel an emotional connection with the brand when they walk in,” Lastoria points out. “One way to do that is through the products you surround the pizza with and how they’re branded and packaged.”
&pizza’s interior esthetic is carefully designed to match its branding, using a stark black-and-white theme while allowing each location to find its own voice.
After opening day in July 2012, a second location followed nine months later, and now the brand counts 13 locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. “We knew if people liked what we were doing, we could expand, but we never created &pizza thinking it would be a global powerhouse,” Lastoria says. “We want to open organically, at a fair pace—capitalizing on opportunities, but not growing ahead of our people.”
This is particularly important, as all locations are company-owned. “We are the proverbial outliers, having made a commitment to focusing on company-owned and -operated stores,” Lastoria notes. “One of the most important things is grooming and developing the future leaders of this company. There’s nothing worse than getting ahead of yourself, driving your business forward without the people—because they’re the ones driving the experience, and that’s the most important aspect of this business.”
Lastoria’s intense brand focus has allowed him to shake up an industry steeped in tradition, but innovation isn’t merely a buzzword for &pizza. “Every market is saturated with mountains of the same, and you see a lot of that in the fast-casual pizza category,” he muses. “The only way to be truly successful is to stand for something new and different. It’s not easy, and as more companies catch up on novelty, the very idea of innovation is being diluted. Innovation needs to serve some purpose.
That purpose is, of course, uniting people through pizza, so it’s no surprise that charity work remains at the forefront. A division of the company called &charity works with hundreds of local organizations. “It’s about strengthening foundations that need support, not only for the moment but for the future,” Lastoria says. “Anyone who reaches out with a cause, we support in some capacity. We want to help people who are doing things for other people and help strengthen the communities we serve.”
The love also extends to team members, simply called the tribe. “A tribe is people who are connected to each other, connected to a leader and, ultimately, connected to a purpose,” Lastoria explains. Hence, &pizza hires only those who understand the company’s values—and align with them. Potential tribe members start with an application, but then the process predictably deviates: They answer 10 questions in video format through &pizza’s technology platform and attend a group interview and cultural orientation.
“Some might say it’s onerous, but we want to make sure that the people working here know we’re not careless about who we ask them to partner with,” Lastoria explains. “We have a better chance of retaining [new] tribe members and our existing tribe members, because we pair them up with other folks who have similar values. It’s not about throwing bodies into a shop, but about putting people that truly care next to other people who truly care so they motivate each other. This is a place where people feel respected, where they can have fun and be the best versions of themselves.”
A unique oblong shape and unexpected flavor combinations, plus a gourmet finishing station with fresh add-ons for post-bake artistry, help further differentiate &pizza’s fast-casual concept.
Accordingly, &pizza has become a second home of sorts for those primed to become passionate about a like-minded company. Lastoria, in fact, says he often hears similar comments from the tribe: “Thank you for creating this company, because I can be myself. I feel like I fit in for the first time.”
Guests, too, benefit via the company’s unconventional rewards program, with three tiers of achievement (Troublemaker, Rebel and Maverick) awarding cool &-branded swag along the way. But this is no obligatory T-shirt giveaway: &pizza crafts its own clothes (making T-shirt patterns and purchasing fabric) and even produces a fashion guide twice yearly, complete with new swag and tips on how to rock it. Lastoria has heard people ask why he’s “wasting time” with something so far-flung from pizza production, but he insists it’s the brand’s best move. “It’s a story our tribe members get to tell—this is not a T-shirt with an ampersand logo; it was created by &pizza for its tribe,” Lastoria notes. “That kind of stuff is gold—when you have people so passionate about the little things the company is doing that they want to talk about it.”
Lastoria admits &pizza spends time on projects that aren’t big moneymakers, but his end goal surpasses pure profit. In the long-term, he anticipates a more sustainable brand. “We put the industry on its back heels because of the culture we create by exploring these fun and different things,” he says. “It gets people rallying behind the brand and creates an engine of innovation and ingenuity so that we can put out interesting, unique, dynamic products under the & brand that people will come to love.”
&pizza’s social media strategy involves giving fans a “look under the hood”—such as photos of the office—and sharing what the company is up to or thinking about. Meanwhile, its “makeshift advertising campaigns” make waves in the community through grassroots elbow grease. For example, its roller-skating team glides the streets of D.C., handing out free pizza cards and swag, and has been known to brighten commuters’ days outside metro stops at 8:30 a.m.
Then there’s “pizza bombing,” when tribe members show up randomly with free pizza at offices or on people’s doorsteps. “People get a kick out of it because it’s different, unexpected and fun,” Lastoria says. “And it’s a way for us to say thank you to the community for supporting us and allowing us to be who we are today. We remember what it was like when we opened our doors, crossing our fingers and hoping the community would support us after we put so much into the brand. I’m constantly blown away by how supportive people are.”
Support has always been a two-way street at &pizza, and success stories abound even outside the pizzeria’s four walls. With its original location blocks away from the largest all-deaf college in the country, Lastoria hired sign language-fluent tribe members and was personally working the register when one of its students arrived and mentioned starting a sports team. “After 10 minutes, we decided to write a check and sponsor what ended up being the first all-deaf rugby team in America,” Lastoria recalls. Another student—the pizzeria’s very first guest, Nyle DiMarco—was asked to model for the company’s first local in-shop ad campaign and recently became the first deaf winner of America’s Next Top Model.
Even as victories large and small accumulate, Lastoria understands that naysayers come with the territory when you’re in the business of rethinking (and rewriting) the rules. But, like most rebels, he’s learned to ignore the critics. “We’re creating what we think a pizza shop should be—so no one can tell us, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” he says. “We can do anything we put our minds to. It’s ours, and we’re OK with failure, as long as we do what’s right for the brand and what’s right to us.”