Latest Toppers Pizza News
Jul 22, 2021
Chicken and cheese are often considered two of the toughest animal-derived products to replicate the flavor and texture of in plant-based items. But Toppers Pizza has found answers to both that has allowed the chain to become the little Midwest darling of the vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian pizza-eating crowd. No meat? Toppers says, "No problem" with menu items like this Vegan Nashville Hot & Crispy pizza. (Photo provided) July 22, 2021 Whitewater, Wisconsin-based, Toppers Pizza, may operate out of the heart of cheese country, but the brand is making some pretty bold moves to appease vegan pizza-eaters, who eschew all kinds of cow-derived cheeses. That leaves those types of diners with few choices across the wider pizza landscape. But Toppers is doing something about that. In fact, this year the brand has taken some real steps toward becoming BFFs with all diners inclined toward a vegetable-based diet. Not only is the brand adding a Vegan Nashville Hot & Crispy pizza, but also a Buffalo Chicken-Less pie along with Beyond Meat chicken tenders. These new players on the company's menus join with the current array of cauliflower-based pizza crusts and Topper's Caulipower King pie, to provide everyone from flexitarians to vegan with an array of viable plant-based offerings. It's a pretty big commitment among a pizza-eating audience that often seeks out a ton of dairy-based cheeses on their pies, but also those blanketed in animal meat like pepperoni and sausage based pies, which are still strong players on Toppers' menu. But the brand's attention to the plant-eating public as well appears to be registering with customers of Toppers' approximately 65 stores in 12 states. As proof of that sales success, you need look no further than the brand's balance sheet, which indicates Toppers has recorded double-digit sales growth for a dozen quarters now, as well as making some sweeping improvements digitally to enhance both its mobile payment and loyalty offerings. But at Pizza Marketplace, the relatively over-the-top embrace by Toppers of plant-based eating stood out. So we were fortunate recently to be able to field some questions around this initiative with Toppers Pizza Director of National Marketing and Menu Innovation Mac Malchow, which we're sharing with our readers today. Q: Toppers is coming off some pretty nice sales success over the past 1½ years, so can you tell us a bit about that and how it has played into your decisions to go strongly plant-forward now? A: We've definitely had a great run of sales success, going back over three years now. We've had 12 straight quarters of same-store sales increases, an accomplishment we're extremely proud of. Our system-wide AUV is over $1 million, and we just had our first restaurant cross the $2 million-dollar mark. The brand is on fire right now. The success stems back to investments we made in technology, going back six years ago with the development of our first-party proprietary POS platform, Pizmet, and investments made into our menu innovation program. Not to mention, our restaurants are operating at an all-time high, shown by our company-wide Google star average rapidly approaching 4.0 — a number highly coveted by most restaurant chains. The decision to offer plant-based products was an easy one for us. We started the groundwork last year, through our partnership with Vegan Culinary Chef Melanie Manuel. She helped us create awesome, great tasting, Toppers-worthy vegan recipes for this under-served customer base. She also helped us understand what adjustments we'd need to make to our current operating platform to make sure we followed the right vegan procedures in our restaurant. After we had these systems in place, it was easy to incorporate more plant-based products into the mix, following the success of our vegan recipe launch. Q: You've got an entire section of the menu devoted to plant-based items, so give us an idea of the variety there and why you opted to jump in with both feet on this trend, which pizza brands have mostly held back on? A: Variety is key for anything in the restaurant industry. Most people have a favorite from every restaurant they visit, but they want the flexibility to switch it up from time to time. So, we knew it would be important to offer multiple products on this plant-based menu. We have vegan pizza recipes, plant-based chicken recipes, vegetarian recipes that can be customized vegan. We also have a new plant-based, gluten-free crust from Caulipower as part of this rollout, and even a plant-based chicken option for people to add on from Beyond Meat. It's a pretty comprehensive menu. Q: Although Toppers has stores in the southern U.S. and elsewhere, I think of Toppers as a mostly Midwest brand, which has always been strong meat and dairy country. Has that been changing and how does plant-based figure into the brand's growth strategy? A: We definitely have a strong dairy heritage here in the cheese state of Wisconsin, and there's also some deep roots in the beef industry in neighboring states. We've got a great partnership with Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, and we'll continue that moving forward. Plenty of people love our 100% real Wisconsin mozzarella, and for good reason — it's delicious, obviously! But it's no secret that things like plant-based, vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, etc. are the fastest-growing sectors in the restaurant industry, even here in the upper Midwest. Just look at a toppings report from Technomics and you'll see half the options are some sort of plant-based option. Toppers prides itself on being ahead of the big guys when it comes to innovation, so this was a pretty easy decision to make. Q. Those in foodservice are well aware that the flavor and texture of both chicken and cheese are really hard to replicate in plant-based products. Still, Toppers is featuring both as plant-based varieties on its menu. How hard was that pursuit and how long did it take to settle on your winners in those categories? A: It took a while, at least what we would consider a while for our size. From the time we started investigating, to the time we rolled out our first recipes in a test market, it was probably about seven months. After testing, we were able to roll out recipes system-wide about four months after that, and then our overall plant-based menu about seven months after that. We reviewed so many cheeses that fell terribly short of our expectations. It wasn't until our partnership with Vegan Chef Melanie Manuel that we were finally able to find a cheese and chicken option we were proud to sell. She helped get us started with vegan and then another culinary partner of ours, Jim Doak, helped us take the next step into overall plant-based. He really helped us navigate additional toppings and recipes that would fit plant-based and have the potential to fit vegan. For instance, our new pesto sauce is cheese-free and nut-free and tastes amazing. A big win all around. Q: What was the sales curve like or what is it like, on your customers' acceptance of plant-based menu items? For instance, did it take a while to grow, or spike and then level out or something else? A: We were shocked by the response from vegan and plant-based customers: Great sales out of the gate and the comments online were tremendous. We were very happy with the launch and steadiness of the sales. Q: How are you gauging what your customers are really feeling about these items and their popularity? Strictly sales, or other factors? A: Sales is one factor, but we have very large social media followings on Facebook and Instagram, and even local Facebook pages in all our markets. The comments we received there were so positive and terrific to see. Here's an example from our Charlotte market: Q: Where is Toppers headed from here with its plant-based menu and how would you say this category figures in overall brand success going forward? A: We will definitely be continuing to innovate in this area. It's a part of our routine now and will continue to be, moving forward. We've got some ideas in the hopper now, but we're not ready to tell anyone about them — not yet, anyways. (Inset social media capture provided by Toppers).