The Restaurant & the Experience: &pizza Makes Their Mark

By: Bill McCool

Can pizza ever aspire to be more than just pizza?

&pizza believes that the answer is a resounding yes. With their recent “Make Your Mark” campaign, they’ve focused on going beyond branding and packaging and have instead opted to create an experience for their customers. It was an opportunity for them to not only celebrate the bold and diverse communities they serve but to honor those that are trying to make a mark in their own neighborhood. This is definitely not Papa John’s. One look at their most recent commercial might even leave you perplexed as to whether or not you actually just watched an advertisement for a pizza company.

“At the end of the day, it’s a little touchy-feely,” says &pizza CEO Michael Lastoria. “We wanted to lead with a symbol that stood for inclusion, unity, and connectedness. The irony behind that is, we clearly didn’t come up with the ampersand, we just took ownership of it. The idea was connecting people through pizza.”

Opened in 2012, the Washington, DC-based chain that specializes in quickly made craft pies has now grown to 23 locations across the northeast. Their oblong pizzas feature locally sourced ingredients and are baked in under two minutes.

Not only is Lastoria the CEO, he’s also the creative director. While it may seem a little off-putting at first (because honestly, how many pizza chains have creative directors?), when you hear him speak about the ideas behind the campaign there is an underlying passion about togetherness and inclusion.

“To us, it’s really about expression,” he says, “and believing in the ideals of the ampersand and what it means to us, what it means to our family, but also celebrating the individuals that are out there putting themselves on the line every single day because they have a point of view, they have a purpose, and they have a passion behind doing something that will hopefully change their neighborhoods and the whole world for the better.”

It helps that &pizza has JWALK, the creative agency co-founded by Michael, at their disposal. Having produced work for the likes of Kenneth Cole and Lacoste, they were able to leverage the power of the agency to create a structure around the marketing campaign.

In addition to the inspiring videos that were created by JWALK, they have also mined their rabid fanbase for user-generated content. Customers are encouraged to find ampersands out in the wild (i.e., outside of the store) while also talking about what the symbol means to them. After posting it via one’s social media channels, they have a chance to win free pizza—and if you think, “So what, it’s just free pizza,” keep in mind that some of their most devoted followers have gotten their ampersand tattooed on their bodies with the promise of free pizza for a year.

They also currently have a pizza box contest where some of their more artistically-inclined guests can design their own where winners will have their creation mass-produced.

JWALK’s campaign has an effortless feel, perhaps because they’ve simply provided the framework for their customers to fully engage with the brand.

“When you can get predominantly user-generated content,” Michael says, “it means that the ability and staying power of the campaign is far greater because we’re not as a company consistently turning out content. We’re simply the architects of our definition of the symbol, and it’s people’s interpretation of that symbol which will really give this campaign legs for many years to come.”

While it is a challenge making sure that people are aware of the ampersand and what they are trying to communicate with it, they have created something that looks and feels authentic in that they have forged an emotional connection with their intended audience. A pizza box is no longer a pizza box; instead, it’s a vessel that helps tell a story. By creating a deeper connection with a brand, consumers will have a more meaningful experience. &pizza is hardly the only player on the market with this business model, but with so many competitors like Blaze and Pieology, they need to set themselves apart from the crowded field.

To further stand out, the company lives their values and backs it up not with platitudes, but with real action. &pizza is a part of the Business For a Fair Minimum Wage network and they are very outspoken in the restaurant and business community having helped introduce legislation with Bernie Sanders. Leading by example, they can enlist other businesses to join in the fight for paying workers a livable wage of $15 dollars an hour.

“This is not a company run by an individual,” Michael says. “This is a company that truly represents the collective force of people that want change and want change for the better and we’re fully behind that.”

&pizza is more than just a restaurant. Yes, we can all come together over pizza—but this is the future of retail and the overall customer experience because you’re creating an identity that you can interact with. And while the logo of the ampersand itself is already a symbol for bringing people together, they’re adding more layers to that meaning by letting their customers reinterpret it as well.

Of course, if you decide to get the tattoo, maybe don’t tell your folks you did it for the pizza.


Bill McCool
Bill McCool is a freelance writer based out of Los Angeles. Though new to the world of design, he has always been a storyteller by trade and he seeks to inspire and cultivate a sense of awe with the work and artists he profiles. When he's not winning over his daughters with the art of the Dad joke, he is usually working on a pilot, watching the Phillies, or cooking an elaborate meal for his wife.