Interview: Cultivating Brands As Family
PSFK conference speaker Michael Lastoria, co-founder of &pizza, shares his thoughts on food, culture, community and brand building
Food and community are inextricable, and a new generation of restauranteurs—equipped with the tools of modern branding—is redefining this notion. Leading the charge is entrepreneur Michael Lastoria, co-founder of the alternative fast casual pizza company &pizza, which has grown to include locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
&pizza is not your average lunch chain. Like others, it emphasizes healthy and local ingredients, but it stands out for its art-infused aesthetic (tattoos included) and employee-first work culture. Before Michael speaks at our CXI 2018 conference this Friday, May 18, he caught up with PSFK to talk authenticity, brand building and, of course, pizza.
What will you be speaking about at our conference on Friday, and what would you most like the audience to take away from your talk?
The cult of real culture. The culture of a thing is measured by its ingredients. And that rings just as true with brands as anywhere else. The culture of yesterday was driven by tech companies—the monsters of industry. Tomorrow’s culture is going to be cultivating brands as family. What we are calling the cult of real culture.
You describe your business as an anti-establishment establishment. Can you expand on what that means to you? How does it make &pizza distinct as a brand?
It means that we think differently. I truly believe that. Where others think about what the new hot up-and-coming neighborhood is to put their new store, we think about places with a strong, longstanding sense of community that we can try and join. Where others think about how others perceive the brand and shape themselves based on externalities, we focus on how we want to see our own brand. While others make decisions top down, we know that we’re nothing without our Tribe. We exist for them, and because of them, and we make sure they know they have a voice in shaping who we are and what we stand for.
You prioritize “clean eats.” Could you explain how this came to be an important factor in your business? Is it driven by consumer demand?
Pizza, like everything else, must keep up with the progress of society. That’s why we offer clear nutritional information on all of our food. That’s why we source locally and organically where possible, offer gluten-free and vegan options, and always try to do our best to keep up with progress in health and wellness. Food is a critical part of our national well-being. As a restaurant owner, I take responsibility for playing a role in that part of national life.
You describe your employees as your “tribe.” Could you explain how this makes your company different?
Our businesses, all of them, every one, are built on the shoulders of our employees. Not from the magical genius of our ideas. An idea is a great starting place, sure, but a businesses thrives and fails because of the people within it. &pizza was built on the shoulders of our Tribe. We know that. We value them, and they know that, too. We give them a voice. We give them a say. We believe in their advancement.
Who are your consumers, and how does the consumer experience inform your business design?
We are our consumers, and more and more, we are making not only informed purchasing decisions based on moral and quality, but on aesthetic. Everything we do, everything we buy, everything we eat is now seen as a statement about ourselves—who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in—and aesthetic is a hugely important part of that. Design matters. Brand matters. And the two stand at the intersection of everything happening in today’s marketplace.
Tell us a bit about your involvement with charity and how it impacts your business.
#andcharity means doing things that help strengthen foundations that need support, not only for the moment, but moving forward into the future. We work with local organizations to help build up the communities around us so that they can live improved lives today and tomorrow. And as we grow as a brand and a tribe, we plan on continuing to focus on the communities we serve. It’s not about any one place or one deed. It’s about building something up where it needs building.
We have also been active in the #fightfor15. All of our work counts for nothing if our people cannot live on the wages we pay them. The minimum wage raise is the single clearest way to say to our Tribe, “We value you.” And that’s important to me. It’s equally important that fair pay will not stay at &pizza, but continue to spread all across the country.