Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

A Pizza Franchisee Explains the Secrets Behind His Success

A Wisconsin franchisee discovers the secret behind a pizza chain's unparalleled popularity and makes a bundle in the bargain.

This story appears in the May 2011 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Back in 1997, Dave Gilewski began having strange encounters with breadsticks. But little did he know the cheese-covered carbs were pointing him toward his future. It happened first at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

After a late-night party, a friend ordered Toppers. "The delivery guy came with 10 boxes, and there wasn't a single pizza in the whole stack. It was just Topperstix," Gilewski says. "I thought that was so odd, and everybody was freaking out. They seemed like addicts."

Two years later, during an Oktoberfest celebration in La Crosse, Wis., another friend led Gilewski on an hour-long hike across town. His goal? To get a box of Topperstix. And while visiting his younger brother at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Gilewski learned that his brother's roommate ordered a box of Toppers Tacostix every night for dinner.

"I'd been in three different locations where people were fanatics about Topperstix, and I hadn't even tried the pizza," he says.

While working a job as a yellow pages ad salesman, Gilewski discovered that Toppers had begun selling franchises. He asked for information, mainly to learn more about the craze. And the more he learned, the more impressed he was.

In 2008, Gilewski opened his first Toppers location in Franklin, Wis., and earned more than $600,000 in just eight months. Later this year, he will open a second location in South Milwaukee. We talked with him about opening-day hiccups, speedy service and creating a culture of quality.

We heard you had some trouble on opening day.
The night before we opened, the landscapers cut our power and phone lines. We had 50 people waiting in line, about $20,000 worth of food in our cooler and radio ads saying to call our number. It was probably the worst-case scenario. We got a generator to run the cooler and we had our phone lines rerouted to my cell phone. Somehow, we begged the utility company to come out on a Saturday. We got power at 10 a.m., half an hour before we were supposed to open.

Tell us about your famous delivery time.
Our pizza makers are always looking over the shoulder of the person taking the phone call. Sometimes the food is in the oven before they even hang up. In those cases, we can get pizzas to people in 15 minutes. I motivated managers to increase our speed out the door. It's a team effort, and our employees care if we're ranked one of the fastest­--if not the fastest--units in the company.

We've heard all about the breadsticks. How's the pizza?
Customers might not be aware why our food is so good, but we make fresh dough every day and chop all the veggies. Our ingredients don't have preservatives, and that makes a big difference. We have 19 house pizzas, and some of them are pretty wild. I think the Hangover Helper [Canadian bacon, onions, green peppers, potatoes, bacon bits, mozzarella and cheddar] has the best name.

How do you describe your culture?
It's hard to explain--we just live it. The majority of my workers are 18 to 35 years old, and the big thing is, we work hard and have a great time. There's always an upbeat atmosphere and we try to be fun and irreverent. There are occasions when an employee makes the dough, cuts the vegetables, grates the cheese, stretches the dough, takes the call, cooks the pizza and delivers it. They take pride in something like that. But our culture is not rocket science. We serve great food and we try to be nice about it.

Entrepreneur Editors' Picks