While much of the restaurant industry continues to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic's harsh business climate, at least one sector has benefitted from shifts in how people dine and what they expect from the experience: quick-service pizza.
Toppers Pizza is a prime example. The Whitewater-based chain, with more than 65 corporate- and franchise-owned locations in 12 states, found itself in a position of accelerated growth after the initial shock of the pandemic subsided and safety measures were put in place.
"We were just to set up to benefit from the COVID environment, bottom line," said president and founder Scott Gittrich in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee.
Delivery and carryout service has long been Toppers' bread and butter, said Gittrich, and over the past four years the company developed its own e-commerce platform and digital point-of-sale system.
"That investment really put us in a great position going into this unknown environment to make quick changes that were needed to service customers," he said.
Over the past several months, 73% to 78% of Toppers' sales have come through digital channels, said Gittrich, thanks in part to those quick changes that made contactless delivery and tipping, curbside pickup and customer-restaurant contact easily accessible from a smart phone.
Sales through its online ordering system are up 14.4% year-over-year, and Toppers is preparing for digital sales to continue climbing.
"Our investment in technology in 2020 and into 2021 is unprecedented," said Gittrich. "We're doubling the number of engineers that we have writing code on our platform."
Real estate is another area of opportunity Toppers has its eye on as more retail space becomes available. Currently, its Wisconsin and Minnesota markets hold the greatest potential for expansion.
Toppers added two locations in Wisconsin late last year -- some of the biggest openings the company has ever had, said Gittrich. Later this month, Toppers will open its 20th location in southeastern Wisconsin at 5464 N. Port Washington Road, Glendale, and plans to bring at least two more restaurants to the corridor between Milwaukee and the Fox Valley this year.
"We're just kind of being picky about the real estate because we think there's going to be good opportunities, so we need to work the real estate until we see those gems," said Gittrich.
These days, with curbside pick-up making up almost one-third of its business, the ideal restaurant location includes a pick-up or drive-thru window.
Toppers is looking to add that feature to some existing locations, including its West Bend restaurant. Prior to the pandemic Toppers didn't offer a curbside option, said Gittrich, but now there's a need to serve customers any way they possibly want it.
"Over time we're definitely going to build out this drive-thru channel and other opportunities to provide customers the convenience. And to tell you the truth, something close to the anonymity that really they look for," he said.
Despite high unemployment across the state, Toppers is about 10% understaffed. The hope is that the labor market will balance out in 2021 as people feel more comfortable returning to customer-facing jobs.
Over the next few months, Toppers is aiming to hire 55 additional employees, largely delivery personnel, at its company-owned stores in Wisconsin, including 35 to 40 employees in Milwaukee.
"It's hard to imagine that the high unemployment that's there doesn't create an opportunity for us to continue to expand and invest in people, invest in service for our costumers," said Gittrich. "It's actually a great environment for us to grow-- there's not many restaurants saying that."