Tracking record sales growth over the past several quarters, Whitewater-based Toppers Pizza has taken a major step toward significantly expanding its number of locations. The quick-service pizza chain earlier this week announced Chicago-based Great Plains Capital LLC has purchased a minority stake in the company as its first-ever equity partner. Toppers plans to leverage the long-term investment to accelerate ongoing growth initiatives, including technology innovation and franchise development. “Throughout our 30-year history, consumer demand for delivery, technology, smaller restaurants, and ‘better’ food concepts has continued to grow steadily every single year. The COVID-19 pandemic effectively jolted those trends forward even more. Now, Toppers is perfectly positioned to grow significantly in the next few years," said Scott Gittrich, Toppers president and founder. Gittrich declined to disclose the dollar value of Great Plains investment. Since its founding in 1991, Toppers has grown to 70 locations in 12 states, including more than 20 in Wisconsin. It was listed as the 42nd largest pizza restaurant chain in the U.S. in 2019by Pizza Today. Toppers opened a handful of stores this year, with plans to open 10 to 12 stores in 2022, followed by 20 to 30 per year in 2023 and 2024. Meanwhile, the chain has recorded 13 consecutive quarters of same-store sales increases, surpassing $1 million average unit volume systemwide. The company has sustained success as much of the restaurant industry continues to struggle under the pandemic's harsh business climate and ever-evolving customer expectations. The way Gittrich sees it, Toppers was already in "the right place at the right time" to handle -- and even capitalize -- on the challenges of what he calls the industry's "big shake up." That's thanks to the company's heavy investments in technology in recent years, developing its own e-commerce platform and digital point-of-sale system, as well as keeping its menu fresh with unique items and gluten-free and vegan options.
Gittrich began considering an equity partnership late last year."Things were going really well from a business standpoint -- lots of momentum ... and I think it's reasonable that we’ve had this question of, 'What’s this going to look like in a year or two?' just because of what was going on from a pandemic standpoint," he said. "We made strong goals for 2021 targets, believing this is the way that the world is - we were set up to really do great here, and that's the way it's turned out." Toppers recently finished the third quarter up about 16% over the same quarter last year.
In searching for a minority investor, Toppers drew interest initially from about 60 different firms. Great Plains was ultimately selected from a group of less than 10. As founder, Gittrich only wanted a partner that would fit the company culture he had helped cultivate over the past three decades. They also had to be willing to remain in the backseat. "If somebody was going to be looking to come in and change everything, I never got in a conversation with those people," he said. "The way we went to market, it was going to be obvious that we were looking for a partner that liked what we were doing and just add fuel to the fire." Great Plains' investment will mostly be directed toward technology and people. The company plans to double its training resources in the next year to onboard and support new franchisees, and it recently brought on a vice president of development to ramp up its multi-unit franchise growth. In addition, it will open three company-owned stores next year and four in 2023.
"Scott and the Toppers’ leadership team have built a highly attractive brand and we are thrilled to become their long-term partners," said John Dills, CEO of Great Plains Capital, in a news release. "Toppers has been satisfying loyal customers in their home state of Wisconsin for over 30 years. As the restaurant industry continues to evolve, we think Toppers is very well positioned to expand its store network nationally and bring their unique pizzas and menu items to more happy customers."