Chain Bets on Chicago’s Pizza Appetite
Wisconsin-based Toppers enters city with Greektown location, plans more
December 03, 2011|By Erin Chan Ding, Special to the TribuneIn a formerly empty Greektown storefront, one of Chicago’s newest pizza places opens Saturday, serving up a cheeky attitude, laid-back decor and quirky fare aimed at pleasing the college kids and 20-somethings it’s aiming to attract.
Slogans for Toppers Pizza dot the windows, declaring: “Spank Your Buds” and “Bad Pizza Sucks.” Its menu says, “For a Free Taste of Big-Chain Pizza Just Eat the Cardboard Under Ours.”
“Yeah, we’re kind of sophomoric,” said Scott Gittrich, president of Toppers Pizza Inc., a chain based in Whitewater, Wis. “We talk smack with our customers. We talk smack with each other. We’ve just always been like that.”
Reveling in its own irreverence, Toppers has served its carb-laden food to Midwestern 18- to 24-year-olds for the past 20 years and now has big plans for more units here. But there’s a big question to be answered: Can a place that sells mac-and-cheese or potato pizzas survive in a town known for its pizza prowess?
“The reason we think we can make it in Chicago and that we will make it is that there are several million proven pizza lovers in Chicago,” said Gittrich, 48, who started Toppers in 1991. “We have a distinct place in the market. We don’t do it the way other people do it. The way we talk to our customer, our menu, the way we interact with our customer is simply different.”
Aside from its 19 house pizzas, which include a Canadian bacon- and potatoes-festooned pie named the Hangover Helper, Toppers also serves grinders, quesadillas, wings and breadsticks called Topperstix. Pizzas range from a personal size, which starts at $5.29, to an 18-inch party size that runs $23.99.
One restaurant watcher thinks the chain has a better shot than, say, a pizza place that caters to foodies.
“Familiarity trends upward in a shaky economy. In many cases, consumers will try something if they know what it is,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a consulting firm. “They’re more likely to try that mac-and-cheese and twice-baked potato than a Thai pizza.”
Other pluses, he said, include low overhead. Toppers, which will deliver within a two-mile radius, is considered a quick-service restaurant in that pizzas can be ordered at the counter, picked up and taken home. At the Chicago location, seating is minimal — not including the tomato-red couch not too far from a Nerf basketball hoop.
So far, its strategy seems to be working.
Total sales for the company grew to $21.6 million in 2010, from $15.3 million in 2008, with projected year-end sales for this year of $25.3 million, according to Scott Iversen, director of marketing and franchise development for Toppers.
With the opening of its Chicago location, the chain now consists of 32 units, the majority in Wisconsin. Of those, nine are corporate-owned, with the rest, like the location here, owned and operated by franchisees. Gittrich said that by the end of 2012, there will be 56 locations nationwide, including more stores in Chicago.
Chicago franchise owner Robin Pearce, along with a group of silent partners, plans to open a store in January at Irving Park Road and Narragansett Avenue on the Northwest Side. She is also scouting locations in Wicker Park-Bucktown and the South Loop and plans on opening five stores in Chicago by the end of 2012.
Opening a franchise costs about $400,000, said Iversen, including a $30,000 startup fee. Of the franchise’s revenue, 5.5 percent goes to corporate, with an additional 6.5 percent to 8 percent spent on marketing.
Pearce, a 27-year veteran of Chicago’s restaurant industry, has held management jobs with the Pump Room, Corner Bakery Cafe, Flat Top Stir-Fry Grill and Pompei Pizza, and said she was attracted to Toppers’ growth potential and marketing strategy.
“It’s not competing with the Domino’s of the world or the Pizza Huts,” said Pearce, 53, a Galewood resident, while perched on a chair in her 15-seat store. “It’s got its own niche.”
Marketing is especially important in Chicago, where Toppers has little brand recognition. Among those who had never heard of Toppers, which included several of its 40 new Chicago employees, was Joe Demonte, 46, who owns Macello, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria in the West Loop.
“I don’t feel competition,” said Demonte, who added that he’ll try the pizza when Toppers opens. “The neighborhood actually needs more activity going on.”
Pearce’s marketing team canvassed Greektown and the West Loop this week, offering free pizza and Topperstix to pedestrians and businesses while talking up the store’s 10:30 a.m. Saturday opening (including free food for a year for the first 50 people).
Pearce also will capitalize on the company’s social media efforts, including a Facebook page that posts food discounts on Tuesdays. She has a few surprises she hopes will make the store memorable, like a keg that dispenses Toppers-labeled pingpong balls so customers can use them in games of beer pong.
“What builds a brand is the emotional attachment a guest has,” Pearce said. “If I take care of the people and deliver great food, then the brand will be wildly successful.”