Domino's Sued This Pizza-Maker -- and He's Thrilled

Scott Gittrich used to work at Domino's. Now, as the founder of Toppers Pizza franchise, he uses his marketing to tell customers everything the big players are doing wrong -- and why his brand is better.
Domino's Sued This Pizza-Maker -- and He's Thrilled
Image credit: Courtesy of Toppers Pizza
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This story appears in the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Scott Gittrich is starting a pizza war. Almost 30 years ago, he left a manager role at Domino’s to launch the Wisconsin-based pizza brand Toppers Pizza. Since then, he’s been taking swings at his former employer -- and earlier this year, Domino’s struck back with a cease-and-­desist letter. (It was because of a recent ad claiming that Domino’s ships factory-made dough to its stores. “Them: Dough fresh off the semi. Us: Dough made fresh in-house daily,” it says.) But Gittrich says he’s happy for the controversy; it only helps him gain attention in a crowded field. Now the company he began with $30,000 in savings has 80 restaurants, a growing roster of franchisees and pizza that’s worth legal action.

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Your marketing is feisty, to say the least. What’s the strategy? 

From the very beginning, we had this rowdy, smack-talk attitude. It was kind of accidental at first, but now we’ve got a brand image that matches our culture. It’s real, it’s relevant and it cuts through the clutter. Good advertising tells customers what’s different about you. When we found out that many of our customers didn’t know some of the practices we pride ourselves on, we decided to create a campaign that called out what we do differently -- like making our dough from scratch and using dough that’s never been frozen. We’re poking our competitors in the eye. 

Why single out Domino’s? 

It’s really the whole industry, but we decided to use Domino’s as our placeholder for the big pizza chains. We came up with the idea to do it in a brash, fun-loving sort of way, and, gosh, am I glad we did. I do it with love. I’ve got a bunch of good friends at Domino’s, and they’re certainly a good company that does a lot of things right. But hey, there are some things we do differently, and we think we’re better. Customers can make their own choice. 

Related: 23 Marketing Techniques That Cost You Time, Not Money

In a crowded segment, how do you build a loyal customer base? 

It starts in the restaurant. There’s nothing we could do that would overcome bad management in a restaurant. I know that sounds hokey, but that’s the reality of it. Back in the beginning, we used to buy boxes of flyers, hand them out to people and put them on car windshields. Our advertising was so low-tech and unsophisticated, but what we did in the restaurant and how we interacted with customers gave people a reason to be loyal. 

As you continue to grow, how do you recruit your franchisees? 

Our first franchisees were people I either knew from Domino’s or people who worked at Toppers and scraped together the money to open up their first pizza place. A lot of our restaurants are still owned by those first franchisees. Recently, we’ve attracted more restaurant people -- an operator at Papa John’s, an operator at Domino’s. Most contact us via referral, but we’re picky about the people we do business with because we want that organic, owner-operated feel. We’re an underdog in a big segment, so you’ve got to be a fighter. 

Related: 3 Simple Things You Can Do to Grow Your Business

Do a lot of your restaurant employees still eventually become franchisees? 

One of my favorite stories is from about 10 years ago. I was visiting a franchisee’s restaurant and there was this young pizza delivery guy.  He was like, “Oh my gosh -- I can’t tell you how much I love working at Toppers. I’m going to be a franchisee one day.” At the time, he was working for a franchisee who had worked for another franchisee who had worked for me at one of my restaurants. So I thought of that kid as my great-great-grandson in the pizza business. It gave me the shivers. A place that started off as an idea has become a place where people can feel good about showing up to work, building their own business and making a living. 

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