What can chef restaurateurs learn from a fast casual pizza mogul?
Super Chef recently spoke with Samit Varma, CEO of Pizza Studio, a fast casual Chipotle-like pizza concept founded in 2013 that has over 25 restaurants with another 100 in planning stages through franchisees. It’s offers customers five different crusts and sauces, four cheeses, and unlimited toppings. Customers choose what they want and watch as the pizza is assembled and cooked in three minutes while they are paying for it. The idea is married with a wall of local art for sale that ties each restaurant to its community.
Samit has an unusual background that includes a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MBA, and experience both on a submarine in the Navy and as a venture capitalist with Anthem Venture Partners. He entered the restaurant industry after admiring the efficient management of a Chipotle restaurant. He partnered with veteran franchiser Ron Biskin who had worked as a senior executive with Burger King, TGI Friday’s and Baja Fresh, and fast casual pizza restaurant Wolfgang Puck Express.
Super Chef: How did you launch Pizza Studio?
Samit Varma: I was working in venture capital and I ate at Chipotle. I loved the products, the consistency, everything about it. I thought to myself, this should exist for pizza. This could be big opportunity. I partnered up with a guy, Ron Biskin, with 30 years of experience. We hired an executive chef, a CIA graduate and pizza expert Ian Gonzalez, to help us develop dough recipes, multiple flavors of dough – rosemary herb, whole grain and flax. We spent a lot of time developing them, took a technical approach to the product. When we started we wanted a franchise concept that we could take nation wide. A consistent product is what we focused on. We opened our first Pizza Studio in Jan 2013 and it was a huge hit, we did a lot of testing using focus groups to get it all right.
Super Chef: Why did you choose an executive chef?
Samit Varma: Ian Gonzales has a pizza catering business on the side, which he has been doing for many years. He caters for A-list celebrates. He is a partner. All of our employees are partners, they are all owners.
Super Chef: So, are the dough, sauces, and toppings manufactured at each location?
Samit Varma: No, for consistency reasons, we have arranged for manufacturers of the products, and they distribute through Cisco. The dough is very sensitive to water chemistry, mixing, yeast, humidity, temperature, how long it sits, so we have set up three dough manufacturing sites throughout county. We check the water daily. If you want to build a brand, it has to taste the same wherever you eat. So, the design is the same for the restaurant. We took a lot of care.
Super Chef: Why is it called Pizza Studio?
Samit Varma: It looks like a modern art studio. It’s about creativity, experimentation. It’s about unlimited topping on your pizza. On one wall in each restaurant we have local artists who sell their original works of art. It’s commission free. We have already sold several thousand dollars worth of art. It goes back to what we are creating with pizza studio – it’s a place of creativity. Be inspired to try different things. People often order the same thing when they go out. We have very unusual things to top a pizza. It’s a very different experience. You choose your flavor dough, then walk down an assembly line…build your own pizza, then you get to the register, pay, get your drink, and by then it is ready. It’s very different from other chains. It’s 100% individualized and create by you.
Super Chef: But why pizza?
Samit Varma: I was born here, I was born and raised in Port Jefferson Long Island. Pizza was a big part of growing up for me. My mom perfected pizza dough. All the kids would make our own little pizza with our own toppings, even hot dogs and Tic Tacs. That is how is how it all started.
Super Chef: How do you choose franchise partners?
Samit Varma: We look for two main things with franchisees: first are they experienced restaurant operators and stewards of a brand? We want people who understand both service and food. Most of them are franchisees of another brand, Panera, Red Robin, etc.
Second: they need be multi-unit developers. They need to have the resources to build multiple units. The smallest franchisee has seven units. It is much easier to manage 30 franchisees then 300. We secret shop their stores, and make sure it’s a good fit with us.
We are expanding nation-wide in all areas simultaneously . We are in ten states already, with six more on the way.
Super Chef: Let’s go through the core elements you borrowed from your experience as a high tech entrepreneur and how you applied these to the restaurant business. The first is team centric. What does that mean?
Samit Varma: We approach this business in the same way we have approached business in the past, with an attention to detail, amazing employees, infrastructure in LA to support operations, and investment in the operations to make it successful. There is a difference between a one-off and a nationwide brand – we have invested many millions in the company before we even sold one pizza. We are building a big brand. That is very different. It’s a bigger commitment. We opened one to start with, and took six months to work out kinks. We don’t really cook too much on site. The manufacturing partners make sauces and dough, they go through lengthy certification process. So at the store it’s not complicated to put a pizza together.
Super Chef: What about product optimization?
Samit Varma: It refers to how we refine the menu based on consumers demand in that region. It is easy to introduce new flavors of crust, and optimize the product mix. For instance, next year we are working on a pumpkin flavored crust for the fall, so we do have seasonal crusts. We have local produce suppliers for local peppers, or in Boston we’ll have clams. In Maryland we’ll have blue crabs. There is vegan cheese in every restaurant.
Super Chef: What about lean operations?
Samit Varma: The labor model for store is low. The ovens are fully automated. You literally put it on the belt and forget about it. It is all about automation and simplicity.
Super Chef: And ‘food engineering’?
Samit Varma: We use engineering practices in quality control. The way dough bubbles has been tested. We have a dough press that has been customized. We use engineering equipment and specification to create the desired product.
Super Chef: Are you planning on expanding outside the US?
Samit Varma: Nothing is stopping us. We know how to do this, we know how to scale up, and we have relationships around the world. This method is very popular. We are very excited.