Michael Lastoria, co-founder, creative director, and CEO of &pizza–dubbed “the pizza shop for the 21st century” by The Washington Post–has vivid memories of opening his first shop on H Street in Northeast D.C. in the summer of 2012. The area was rapidly gentrifying; new restaurants were opening with price tags that placed the new eateries out of reach of the people that had lived around H street their whole lives. So when Lastoria opened shop, he did things differently.
“We priced people in,” Lastoria says while speaking at &pizza’s 28th street shop in New York City, one of the newest of its now 23 locations, during the Fast Company Innovation Festival. All the pies–with unlimited toppings, vegan and gluten-free options–were flat priced at $9. “That’s a lot of what gave us credibility,” Lastoria says. Soon, lines were out the door, and &pizza was expanding around D.C.
In the five years since the H Street shop opened, &pizza has expanded through Maryland and Virginia to Philadelphia and New York City; Boston and Miami are next.
Each &pizza shop is tailored to the neighborhood in which it lives. The company collaborates with a local artist to design the interior décor; in the New York location, abstract graphics created by the muralist Rubin line the walls. Through its “little giants” initiative, &pizza partners with small local makers, like the Brooklyn-based Mike’s Hot Honey, to flavor their pizzas and to bring more visibility to the smaller brands. The pizzas are adorned with produce that is, whenever possible, locally sourced. And through its &charity initiative, the company makes a concerted effort to invest in the communities around their shops.
“We want to be the best neighbors,” Lastoria says. “We have a running policy that if you come in and tell us about a cause you care about, we’ll support it.”
That ethos has brought about &pizza’s partnership with FoodCorps, an NYC-based nonprofit that connects local schoolkids to healthy food. For every pizza sold on a couple days over the summer, &pizza donated another to FoodCorps. Their partnerships with charities are often short and on a case-by-case basis, not due to a lack of commitment, Lastoria says, but in an effort to spread the company’s philanthropic reach. Anyone can enter a philanthropic request on &pizza’s website, or tell an &pizza employee (who are known as members of “The Tribe” in an effort to boost a sense of shared mission). The company has gone so far as to sponsor and host the wedding of a D.C. couple who couldn’t afford one; Lastoria became ordained in order to facilitate, and weddings on March 14 (that’s Pi Day) have since become something of an &pizza tradition.
But there’s one cause in particular that inflects all the work &pizza does, and that’s fair wages. Over the summer, Lastoria headed to Capitol Hill to re-introduce a bill with Senator Bernie Sanders, calling for a $15 minimum wage by 2024. “We’re creating an environment that promotes bringing the best out,” Lastoria says. “We don’t hire for skill, we hire for personality and style,” he adds. “You just need to be yourself.” That often leads to &pizza hiring people that have not had many job opportunities before–and certainly not ones that pay a living wage and offer healthcare. But to Lastoria, the way of doing business that hurts workers in an effort to save costs is not doing good business at all–and it creates a work environment that’s impossible to feel any loyalty to.
That is not the case with &pizza. Some employees feel loyal enough to the company that they get the signature ampersand tattooed; Lastoria himself has one. And the logo, he says, pretty much says all you need to know about the company. “We make a really good pizza, but it doesn’t end there,” he says. “There’s room to do more.”