Monday, August 8, 2011

New pizza joint called Toppers Pizza hopes to top the competition and build the brand into 70 stores nationwide. Can they do it?

Toppers Pizza fired up its ovens for customers at its new Stadium Village location in Minnesota and things are topnotch there.

The new restaurant on Washington Avenue will be the chain’s third in the state — part of a plan to open more than 70 restaurants across the nation in the next several years.

The expanding Midwest chain will become the fifth pizza place in a two-block radius, raising the question of whether the college-aged market can be oversaturated with pizza. Yes and no. What's your POV? Can they succeeed?

Probably not, say a Carlson School of Management marketing professor, neighboring pizza parlors and Toppers’ store manager Pat Klasen.

Campus Pizza, less than a five-minute walk from the new Toppers location, has called Stadium Village home for more than 50 years and isn’t too worried about the new competition. Owner Jim Rosvold compared the campus pizza market to automobiles — filled with a variety of makes and models.

“You have your BMWs, your Pintos, your Cadillacs,” he said. “Every place is a little bit different.”

But having so many competitors in the area is a positive thing, he said.

“If you’re a pizza lover, Stadium Village is a great place to go,” he said. “We have a little bit of everything here.”

Mark Bergen, a Carlson School marketing professor, said similar restaurants often cluster in one area to make it “the place to be.”

Early promotions and buzz are likely to get people in Toppers’ doors, but many fast-food establishments struggle to keep them coming back, Bergen said.

He said in the crowded campus market, Toppers will be able to stick around if it can do one of three things — provide the same or better quality pizza at lower prices, create a better all-around experience than competitors or meet the needs of a certain customer type previously ignored by the market.

Klasen promised to do all three. Toppers will “push the pizza envelope” and cater to the needs of a college-aged pizza consumer in order to set it apart, he said.

“We’re really trying to reinvent the pizza market,” he said, “especially with all of the bigger chains being kind of boring.”

With marketing that promises its pizza will “spank your taste buds” and with a focus on “the fun side of things,” Klasen said Toppers offers the experience students have been seeking — but not getting — from the competition.

Klasen said he was attracted to the location, whose neighbors include residence halls, bars and sports venues, because of its potential for walk-up business.

Rosvold has seen a number of pizza places come and go over the years, but those able to stick around follow traditions rather than trends, he said.

He said he wouldn’t be too fast to count out Papa John’s or Domino’s, which have both been in the Stadium Village for decades, and added that while business may dip a little when a new restaurant opens, customers tend to return to their old staples after a while.

Rosvold also said it will be difficult to draw attention to the business with heavy Central Corridor light-rail construction outside of the new store’s front door.

Klasen says he’s is aware of the challenge.

“It’s going to be a little different for us,” he said. “We’re going to have a tougher time getting people to notice us.”

In an effort to hit the ground running, the first 50 people in line when the restaurant opens at 10:30 a.m. Saturday will receive a free menu item each week for a calendar year.

Klasen said though the experience and fun are part of the business, fresh, made-from-scratch food is at the heart of what they do.

“We look at what competitors do and do the complete opposite,” he said. “That’s Toppers.”

Todd Stevens said in a comment in the after-article: "Me, I like Toppers' chances. They opened a place down near UW-Madison a few years back and they've easily become the most popular delivery pizza place on campus (probably because they're whole schtick is tailored to a college audience). If they catch on quick enough they're going to steal a lot of business from chains like Domino's, probably not so much from local specialty pizzerias like Campus Pizza."

Dave had his own take: "Rosvold isn't scared, Campus Pizza offers a higher quality product than the Domino's/Papa John's/Toppers of the world. Campus Pizza also has the advantage of being a restaurant and bar. The place that needs to worry about Toppers is Papa John's. Toppers is generally cheaper and the quality is better than Papa John's (which, admittedly, isn't saying much). For the college kids who are stumbling around late at night though, quality is hardly their first concern. Quantity and cost rule the early morning hours."

And last but not yeast, this comment says it all: "This writer failed to mention that Toppers is open until 3 a.m. with lots of (possibly intoxicated) college kids around, so this Toppers is sure to be a hit. Sounds like Rosvold is a little scared......"

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many Toppers Pizza restaurants were in Minnesota. The Stadium Village location will be the chain's third restaurant in the state. The story also incorrectly stated the year by which Toppers will open 70 more restaurants and when the new location will open. The chain will open the new locations by 2013 AD, if the USA still exists by then, and will open Saturday at 10:30 a.m.

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