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Sammy Mandell sat arms folded over his forehead as the anticipation built seconds before the name of Pizza Today’s first-ever Young Entrepreneur of the Year winner was announced at International Pizza Expo in March. He stood, eyes wide, as his name was called while his table of Greenville Avenue Pizza Company (GAPCo) team members and the audience erupted into cheers.

He put himself out there in a major way, along with finalists Christal Spata of Valeo’s Pizza in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Scottie Rivera of Scottie’s Pizza Parlor in Portland, Oregon, to share his entrepreneurial story to a large banquet room filled with fellow pizzeria operators who voted on a winner based on a 10- to 15-minute presentation and a four-minute video.

That’s what an entrepreneur does. They take chances. They innovate. “If you would have told me 10 years ago, at the age of 35, that I would own two restaurants, a trademarked seasoning, a licensed song, and designed and created the persona of the Pizza Slayer, I would have told you that you are crazy. But that’s what an entrepreneur is — crazy,” he said in his Young Entrepreneur video submission.

Pizza Today traveled to Dallas, Texas, in April to spend the day with our first Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Sammy met us outside of the Lowest Greenville GAPCo location with an undeniable energy. He introduced Munchie (GAPCo’s pizza slice mascot) and the crew as we passed through the narrow counter-service slice shop, open pizza makeline and communal high-top seating. We continued out the back door, up a flight of stairs and into GAPCo’s office, where we met the leadership team: wife and co-owner Molly, who leads GAPCo’s social and community outreach strategies; Phil Bossart, creative director; Sena Munoz, financial administrator, and Katelin Auden, office administrator.

The large footprint was laid out like a creative agency with a common area and offices. Items dotted around the room reveal GAPCo’s evolution. A mannequin wore the latest prototype of a leather holster, a key piece of the pizza maker’s (Pizza Slayer’s) uniform. GAPCo t-shirts and other swag lined one wall and a custom e-bike took center stage.

It’s clear that Sammy has created a space that has both positioned GAPCo for growth and made it a pizzeria think-tank of sorts.

On a large, dry-erase board, Sammy has outlined extremely rapid growth goals for GAPCo, seven more stores in just four years. GAPCo sat at No. 80 on Pizza Today’s Hot 100 Independent Pizzerias list in 2017 with more than $2.8 million in annual gross sales. Sammy says 2018 should see a significant jump up the list. GAPCo was also among Fortune’s 100 Fastest Growing Inner-City Businesses.

In order to reach the pizzeria’s growth benchmarks, he has set employee development and attracting top talent as key to GAPCo’s expansion.

Sitting down with the team, the first area Sammy chose to highlight was GAPCo’s in-house videos, the cornerstone of Sammy’s vision for the company. He hired Bossart as creative director over a year ago to create high-quality, professionally produced content that is edgy and fun.

“Something that I’m trying to do is create a brand that becomes a magnet that attracts talent,” Sammy says, adding that the content and the Pizza Slayer persona helps GAPCo visualize the attractiveness of its culture. “A lot of the reason for the content, bringing on Phil — all of this — was to say, ‘How can we make the brand look so attractive, how can we put this vision out there that people say, ‘hey I want to work at GAPCo. I want to be a Pizza Slayer.’”

GAPCo videos are captivating and cool. Many of them are a little off-the-wall, like one that chants “slay pizza” continuously. But, that’s the point. GAPCo is different and it’s looking to attract a different kind of talent.

“For us, it’s really trying to bring people into our story, instead of it being ‘oh, hey, we make pizza; we’re scratch; we’re local,” says Sammy, adding that GAPCo embodies those qualities. But, “It’s looking at this world we are trying to create.” 

Every great entrepreneur starts with a simple idea. Sammy had a light bulb moment when he realized the Lowest Greenville area was void of a pizzeria. He was just 23 years old when he and his wife, Molly, started Greenville Avenue Pizza Company in 2007. 

“I thought to myself — no brainer … bar strip, pizza by the slice, open past 2 a.m., we’re going to make a killing,” Sammy says. “Having only three months of working at Chili’s, I was not prepared for that kind of challenge. Luckily I had some kind of business smarts being an entrepreneur prior, owning an ATM business. I had an older brother that knew food and helped me in the beginning stages. My mom came in and was cashier and would clean all the linen.”

Greenville’s beginning years were tough, rife with obstacles, including a lengthy streetscape construction project that forced Sammy to create a pizza box bridge to get to the pizzeria. Financially in the business, Sammy and Molly were just trying to hold on. 

They spent the first several years in the trenches. Molly was a teacher by day and worked at the restaurant at night while Sammy worked the pizza line, meticulously verifying the quality of each pizza that left the kitchen. “I did not want to be stuck being behind a pizza line forever, because that was never the idea. The idea was: I see a demand. I’m going to fulfill this. And then I found myself behind the pizza line for 90 hours a week.”

But he didn’t want to build a model where his employees worked 90 hours a week on a pizza line, either. “There has to be growth. There has to be something that they are working towards,” he says. “I need to expand. I need to grow. I found myself traveling to other pizza places, seeing what works, going to meet other pizza operators, going to Pizza Expo, educating myself, teaching myself the tools that I needed to and learning from others.”

Gradually he began implementing strategies and protocols that he had learned about: efficiency; staff development; purchasing and all the components to be an effective restaurateur. GAPCo developed unique quality controls and engaged in cost-saving prime vending, driving its food costs to stay steady in the low 20- percent range. 

Learning GAPCo’s formula for pizza consistency was mind-boggling and genius. Topping counts keep each pizza identical. “We created counts for everything. Everything works off of 32, 22, 19, 10, 9, 8, 7,” he rattles off quickly. “That’s the item counts and they’ve got the patterns after that. So a 32 is 6 across the middle, (then) 5, 5, 3 and it’s mirrored on the other side.” When managers teach new employees the unique memorization formula, they also teach them how to break it down and teach it themselves. It helps them retain the information, Sammy says.

Sammy wanted more than to be a good restaurateur. His true vision for the pizza company was beginning to manifest and Sammy discovered that he aspired to be a visionary entrepreneur, a revelation that would send his late-night pizza hotspot into a new direction.

Keeping the restaurant open its regular hours, GAPCo embarked on a construction project during its closed hours in 2014. The renovation gave the shop a fresh, up-to-date look; enhanced the efficiency and speed of the pizza line; and reconfigured the restrooms to add a second pizza line and oven exclusively for delivery, which accounts for a whopping 40 percent of its business.

That same year, Greenville Avenue Pizza Company hired a branding company and underwent a complete rebranding. “They came up with 10 different logo ideas, one of them being the Phoenix,” Sammy says. “At first I was like ‘I don’t know. The bird?’… They were like ‘but it’s the story of you, of your business and how right now you’re rebranding and you are about to redo your store and you survived the construction. You know you’re like rising from the ashes.’ That’s it. I’m sold. It’s definitely the logo.

“I think the thing that means the most to me is that it actually does have a meaning, it’s not just an acronym. It truly is who we are and our story in a picture.”

The pizzeria shortened its name in many references to simply GAPCo. The remodel was updated to incorporate the hip, new branding design elements.

Everything fell into line to put Sammy’s expansion plans into motion. A second GAPCo opened in mid-2017 in nearby Peavy where Sammy and Molly grew up. The growth strategy was simple: where Lowest Greenville’s delivery area ends, Peavy’s delivery area picks up. The equipment in Peavy is the same as the original location. “It’s all identical,” Sammy says. “I can take an employee completely out of this store and drop them in Greenville and they will be able to do the same stuff.” 

The execution of opening store No. 2 also provided the GAPCo team with learning opportunities for future store development. Peavy is about half the footprint of Lowest Greenville. “Looking back on it, if you are going to make the investment and you are going to put the money into the visuals, you may as well be bigger because you can handle it,” he says.

The Peavy opening gave Sammy the perfect opportunity to formally introduce the trademarked Pizza Slayer. GAPCo’s team members are not pizzaioli or pizza makers. They are Pizza Slayers. They wear sleek, custom chef’s coats and don patented leather holsters with tools of the trade (a pizza cutter and dough knife). They exude confidence, precision, passion and discipline.

Sammy envisioned GAPCo’s culture as its own brand. “As you dive into the (GAPCo) brand, you have its people. The Pizza Slayer is about the people and the videos are about them. It’s that celebration of who they are and the work that they do.” Read more on GAPCo’s Pizza Slayers on page 52.

With a 45-page Slayer manual that requires signoffs and initials, Sammy says, “My expectations are high. So I expect a lot out of my staff. We expect them to care about the food that they are making. I’ve got a great team that believe in me and that believe in what GAPCo is doing.”

The foundation of GAPCo’s product has remained the same as GAPCo expanded. While new items have been introduced, the core product mix has stayed the course. Pizza is 70 percent of the pizzeria’s sales.

“The Supreme is the bestseller, and the Mucho Meato,” Sammy says. The Mucho Meato is topped with pepperoni, ham, hamburger, sausage and bacon. “Fan favorites are the Greek and the Mexican, even though they aren’t necessarily the heavy hitters. When we opened up the second location we tried leave them off, but people were like ‘No.’”

A recent addition is the Pesto Sciutto, which features a house-made pesto, prosciutto, Roma tomatoes, arugula, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan and Pizza Crack.

GAPCo’s trademarked Pizza Crack is a garlic-based seasoning with secret ingredients. Its recipe is so secret that only a handful of people know how to make it — and Sammy requires them to memorize the ingredients. Pizza Crack is bottled and available for purchase at GAPCo locations and through its online ordering system.

The seasoning also takes other menu items to another level, like Pizza Crack Fries and the Crack Fried Chicken Sandwich, with an option of Buffalo, lemon pepper, garlic Parm or BBQ sauce.

Online ordering is gaining ground. Currently at 15 percent of GAPCo’s business, Sammy says he wants more web orders and less phone calls. GAPCo also has contracts with five third-party delivery service providers.

“Our current project is … how do you convert (third-party delivery) customers to use your app?” he questions. “How do you develop an app that makes people want to have it on their phone? It has to do more than just be able to order pizza.”

Venturing into uncharted territory like third-party conversion is what keeps GAPCo moving forward. Converting customers to use the GAPCo in-house delivery service, Sammy says, would help limit costly third-party fees and optimize the pizzeria’s delivery fleet.

Technology is essential to the pizza company’s growth. “It’s this bigger picture; that’s where that entrepreneurship kicks in,” he says. “It’s about breaking trend. It’s about doing something out of the box or, like I say, ‘out of the pizza box.’ For me it’s that reinvestment in the business. Over 10 and a half years, I’ve redone that restaurant three times and there is a fourth coming. If I’m not dumping money into the façade or the build out, I’m dumping it into the tech space.”

GAPCo sets its sights on even more growth in 2019 and the company is using video content to engage with customers and add to its leadership team. “We’re willing to take the risks to figure out how to make it work,” Sammy says. “You’re going to see us take this content to other avenues because it can’t just exist on Facebook. It’s got to be everywhere.”

In true entrepreneurial spirit, Sammy and his team are striving forward. “My job is to keep raising that bar, keep other pizza places around watching what GAPCo is doing. I think of us as this idea machine that is going to be doing so many things that are so intense and so powerful that other people will get to watch this and get to see this and say, ‘how do we do that?’”

Sammy has a determination that’s contagious to the whole GAPCo crew, which allows him to spend more time working on the continued development of GAPCo, instead of on the pizza line.

“I’m never going to stop coming up with ideas,” he says. 

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.


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