Pizza with pizzazz: Toppers finds success in Wisconsin

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Kayla Bunge
Monday, September 14, 2009
— The Toppers Pizza headquarters looks nothing like a typical corporate headquarters.

In fact, it looks a lot like most urban college apartments.

Comfy couches and chairs surround a chic coffee table and a flat-screen television.

Retro movie posters fill a void on a golden-yellow wall.

A pool table anchors a corner in the back, and a refrigerator stocked with beverages anchors the corner in the front.

But that's exactly the image the regional pizza purveyor and its founder, Scott Gittrich, want to present: Toppers Pizza isn't like the chain pizza places; it's the pizza place with an edge—a hip, left-of-center edge.

"We just let ourselves be ourselves," Gittrich said.

And it's that image and a loyal following that have catapulted the Whitewater-based company to the top of the highly competitive pizza industry—even as an economic downturn has threatened to rattle the big pizza chains. Toppers has grown from 13 stores in three states in 2007 to 26 stores in six states today.

Crazy toppings

Gittrich, 46, a native of central Illinois, got his start in the pizza business as a delivery driver, pizza maker and manager at Domino's while he attended the University of Illinois in Champaign.

He worked for the national chain for 7 1/2 years until he hatched a plan to open a different kind of pizza place.

Gittrich set out to create a company that was unlike Domino's, which dominated the market while offering just two sizes and 10 toppings, and unlike Pizza Hut, which had just started delivering, and unlike Papa John's, which was practically unknown.

The Toppers brand was built on good pizza, good service and a unique atmosphere, he said. But the Toppers brand mushroomed because of the loyalty of its customers who, by and large, are college students who stay up late, have a good time and eat good pizza, he said.

"It was kind of an accident," he said. "That was just what we did. We opened in college towns, we stayed open really late, we made pizzas with crazy toppings."

But Gittrich, who was 28 when he founded the company, was just being himself.

"That's who I was," he said.

Branching out

Toppers still holds tight to the original business model, but the company has started to branch out, opening stores in suburban areas and catering to young professionals and middle-class families.

Some might consider it a risk. Others, such as Gittrich, consider it an adventure.

"We were worried about it like any business move we make, but people lined up outside and waited for our store to open," he said of a suburban Milwaukee store that opened four years ago. "That was a really big turn-on for us. It meant our brand meant something bigger than the region and the small state schools."

Gittrich said Toppers fanatics eat the pizza and breadsticks while they're in college, and the food becomes forever linked to nights spent cramming for an exam, chowing down after a house party or tailgating before the football game. He said that association never goes away.

"When we show up in a new market, a certain number of people recognize us. They remember us fondly," he said. "We're associated with burning the candle at both ends, partying and having a good time."

Gittrich said that reputation is a big part of the company's unique position in the highly competitive pizza industry. Domino's, Pizza Hut and Papa John's, for example, are all about providing a meal. Toppers, on the other hand, is all about providing a one-of-a-kind experience that centers on a meal.

"I realized when I started in this business that we were just going to slug it out in this tough industry, and I said if we could be even 1 percent better, that's how we would survive in this business," he said. "And we accidentally built this brand that customers perceived as distinct. There's not a national chain that has that perception in the market. The big guys … hey can't beat what we do."

'A cool spot'

Toppers opened its Whitewater store at 230 E. Milwaukee St. in 1993, its first store in Wisconsin and second store overall.

Gittrich got a call from a friend, who told him the Domino's stores in Whitewater, Janesville and Rockford, Ill., had gone out of business and suggested he check out the area.

"I never heard of Whitewater," he said, "but I drove up and saw there was nobody here. There were two local pizza places, a Pizza Hut and the former Domino's. I was convinced. It looked competition-free to tell you the truth."

Gittrich moved to the area in 1995. He ran the company out of his house in Jefferson for several years and then out of a small, two-room office in downtown Whitewater for several more years.

Toppers continued to grow, and the company needed more room to entertain prospective franchisees, to train employees and to brainstorm. Gittrich more than three years ago bought a bigger building downtown and remodeled it.

"We wanted a place that reflected our image better," he said. "I wanted it to be that somebody walks in the door and feels like, 'Wow! Toppers, this is a cool spot.' … And as each decision came up, we allowed ourselves to be comfortable."

That idea carried over to the rest of the company, too.

Toppers workers don't wear the fast-food standard polo shirts. They wear casual, button-down shirts.

Toppers stores don't look like sit-down restaurants with vinyl booths and Formica tables. They look like urban cafes with couches and coffee tables, bar tables and flat-screen TVs.

And, Toppers ads don't sound like most pizza ads. They sound like a conversation between friends—irreverent, witty and fun.

"It feels like we're just being ourselves," Gittrich said. "We know we're doing it a lot different than the other guys. It's distinctive, but it's an easy way to execute a strategy."

Toppers in 2006 moved its world headquarters to 333 W. Center St., and in March its Whitewater store moved to 325 W. Center St.—just a couple doors down in the same building.

"This has been an absolutely awesome pizza market for us. Even though we started in Illinois, we're a Wisconsin company. This is where we made it."

Lofty goals

Business is booming for Toppers Pizza, but Gittrich is only whetting his appetite.

Sales have climbed more than 150 percent in the five years, he said, and sales are expected to increase more than 30 percent this year, despite the downturn in the economy. About eight stores are opening a year, he said, and that growth is expected to continue.

Gittrich has lofty goals: He wants to have 100 stores by 2013 and 500 stores by 2020.

"It's very doable, even if we're just keeping up the pace we're at now," he said. "Just because the economy has troubles doesn't mean everyone is having problems. There are a lot of good reasons to expand. People are still eating out. It's not like they've quit eating pizza."

Gittrich said the market for pizza eaters—and potential Toppers fanatics—is huge.

"People are not committed to those chain places. People don't say, 'I'm a big Domino's person,'" he said. "We feel like we're competing with Walmart sometimes. We're getting the business because people love to hate 'em."

Last updated: 11:23 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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