&pizza, now with 36 locations from Boston to Miami, makes pizzas shaped more like submarines than saucers. It offers living wages, full benefits and free tattoos to its “tribe.” The tribe stands out (and together) by ascribing to four simple credos: celebrate oneness, make your mark, unite the house and change the game. In addition to the (reportedly) best gluten-free crust ever (now vegan too), &pizza has created a vibe that customers love.

Using Zume Mobile Kitchens, &pizza is creating an off-premise eating experience that reads as intentional as its in-shop experience. Whether their busy, mobile clientele eat in, take out or hit the &pizza mobile kitchens, &pizza strives to make every pie it serves an experience worth coming back for. In this interview, &pizza President + COO Andy Hooper talks about the shifting dynamics between food brands and customers with particular focus on adapting the business to optimize quality in every channel.

The ingredients for success in every channel

In partnership with Zume Inc, we can experiment with mobile kitchens to enhance the guest experience and test new locations and activations for the brand. If a typical delivery takes 30 minutes from order to delivery of the finished pie, with Zume Inc we can move the kitchen closer to your driveway. In a dense urban environment, a mobile kitchen unit supports catering and other brand partnerships. 

In September, &pizza will have mobile kitchens at the Kennedy Center in D.C. for fifteen days to celebrate its grand reopening. We’d never be able to build a pizza shop fast enough to create a technologically integrated experience that feels like our shops. So we’re leveraging mobile units to share our product and story in a very on-brand way with limited lead time.

“We’re using technology as an enabler of a better guest experience and convenience—not to replace our guest interaction.”

When people come into our shop, they’re coming in specifically because they want that touchpoint with us. There are so many obvious and ultra-convenient ways to get our food—but they want the &pizza vibe. We have a responsibility to ensure that every guest interaction comes through a channel that meets them where they are, and delivers a primary, differentiated experience that guarantees they’ll keep coming back.

Owning on-demand delivery

Restaurants have long been people- and venue-focused businesses, slow to adopt technology to elevate foodservice and food quality. As the trend toward online food delivery for the mobile consumer continues to disrupt table service, many restaurants are relying on third-party services for the last mile. Instead of owning the delivery experience, most restaurants—and it’s not just pizza and Chinese restaurants anymore—are taking the easier route and relinquishing control of their product and its handling. They know product quality is eroded in transport due to packaging and/or timing, but they’re willing to give up some control of the chain of custody for the incremental sales.

“These third-party partnerships have been a wake-up call...”

We initially launched &pizza as an in-shop, walk-the-line experience. As a pizza shop, we knew that our guest occasions would inevitably be increasingly off-premise over time; the pizza business has long been predominantly an off-premise experience, particularly for “big pizza” chains. Our first foray into delivery—beyond the sort of street hustle version where we’d walk ten pizzas to the guy down the street—was when we were approached by a third party delivery service in D.C. We now work with multiple partners on delivery, and while it has absolutely driven incremental sales for us on a net basis, we have also gathered significant learnings on the challenges associated with entrusting our product and our brand to someone other than our Tribe. “These third-party partnerships have been a wake-up call: we needed to start thinking about the delivery experience as primary (instead of ancillary) and actively innovate in ways to create the magic of an in-shop experience at home.”

Pizza on a platform

Gaining control of our brand experience shaped our philosophy about where to invest in technology. While many restaurateurs invest in white label mobile-ordering apps and off-the-shelf loyalty programs, we made a decision to own a platform upon which we could continue to build and iterate. Our primary focus is to deliver an exceptional experience for our customers across all channels.

“We essentially became channel agnostic because of our confidence that we could deliver an on-brand experience, an excellent quality product, and exceptional service regardless of their chosen path.”

We are leaning into the future by building a technologically integrated system to help us consistently and intentionally represent our in-shop experience outside of the four walls.

Eating off-premise is a trend that we see continuing to accelerate in the future. Rather than fighting it or taking it slow, we’re leaning into it—to help shape the disruption rather than react to it. Our founder’s disposition is to be a disrupter and an innovator—which keeps our organization focused on what’s around the corner. With a native digital ecosystem, we’ve been able to build integrations with delivery services and technology innovators like Zume Inc on our branded platform. I think the key is to look at the chain of custody, the different touchpoints that we can leverage to get the brand experience in front of our guests—and to replicate our primary guest experience regardless of channel. We do it through our own ecosystem rather than a marketplace.

Finishing touches on every dish

The delivery experience can also be reimagined by suspending traditional thinking.  Regardless of who is transporting your food, there’s an opportunity to allow guests to “participate” in a portion of the creative process much like they do in a traditional walk-the-line experience.  We are currently tinkering with “customer participation” with delivery pies; inviting them to participate in the final assembly. We have toppings that go on before the oven, toppings that go on after the oven and a bunch of finishing drizzles and sauces you can add to the pie. Obviously, if you dine in, it’s beautiful and looks just like the picture. But if you put that in a box in the back of a sedan that circles the block a few times, it may or may not look beautiful when it arrives.

Think about Vietnamese phở, for example: there’s some co-assembly that’s typically required. The broth and rice noodles and beef arrive in the bowl, but the server sets a plate of basil and mint and bean sprouts and chili next to the broth for the guest to add. There’s a ramen shop in D.C. that sends their ramen cold with all the components packaged separately and instructions on how to warm it at your house. It’s much better to eat piping hot ramen with fresh, crisp ingredients than luke-warm ramen with ingredients that have been degraded by preassembly.  Packaging also plays a key role in the overall experience; we are challenging ourselves to use the entirety of the off-premise experience as an opportunity for surprise-and-delight moments at home—we’re not looking at delivery as ‘incremental sales’—we’re creating experiences that leave our mark.

Looking towards the future.

While convenience is driving changes in the way restaurants operate today, the pendulum always swings in this business. I think the brands using technology to connect with consumers in meaningful ways will have an advantage when the new normal reveals itself.

“We are leveraging our partnership with Zume to do what we do better and faster, to experiment with products and seed markets before we build.”

Most importantly, we’re using automation to safeguard the &pizza brand. We don’t look at automation as a way to replace what humans are doing for us today: our Tribe and our purpose are what differentiates us. Intentional investment in technology will be at the center of &pizza’s growth strategy, as we drive for new and exciting ways for our loyal customers to experience the brand, and our partnership with Zume will be front-and-center of that focus.

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