One of the Philadelphia region's recent pizza success stories is that of Snap Custom Pizza, a local piece of a national trend in pizzerias allowing customers to customize pizzas and salads with dozens of toppings for one flat price.
Snap represented a rebooting of the longtime pizza mini-chain Peace A Pizza, which had grown to 10 stores and six franchise locations. Last week, the sixth Snap location opened, in Conshohocken. Another location in Bala Cynwyd is teed up next. (Three of the former Peace A Pizza locations, Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, and Newark, Del., have been converted to Snap sites.)
Snap's founders are lifelong friends from Marblehead, Mass. Pete Howey, now 51, was 13 when he baby-sat for Aaron Nocks, four years his junior.
In the mid-1990s, Howey was working a corporate job for American International Group, and later Wawa, by day, as well as coaching rowing at Villanova University. But he had an itch to open a pizza business. He took classes at the Wharton School and asked Nocks — then doing research in a hospital lab — to move down from Marblehead to start the business with him.
We chatted with Howey about his business history, which is more than just pizza.
How did you start?
We'd be making pizzas at home, and I'd be testing them on all the rowers and getting feedback on developing the initial menu. We would do the Overbrook [Golf] Club's Sunday brunch, experimenting with different pizzas, and we did the CoreStates bike race. Then we found a location: a Bagel Builders store in Ardmore. The landlord, Ken Gross, basically said, "You can come in and take any of the equipment you want." We used the bagel oven for the first, probably, 15 years. But it allowed us to get into business with minimal cost. We turned it around in two weeks from the bagel store to Peace A Pizza and just opened the doors.
What prompted the change from Peace A Pizza to Snap?
People's preferences were changing in recent years. You'd look at what people want in terms of customization, freshness, the ability to modify and get exactly what you want, how you want it, when you want it. I think Snap gives you all those things. Instead of a slice of pizza that could be sitting up there for up to four hours, you're getting something that's made fresh right out of the oven.
What pizza is your top seller?
I think for the last 20 years, the margherita, whether it's Peace A Pizza or Snap. After that, it's the barbecue chicken, is always two or three. It's a different dough, though. Peace A Pizza was, like, thick and hearty. There's a lot more dough in two of those slices than one of these whole pizzas here. We had a whole catalog of crusts when we did the bake-at-home.
Oh, yes. The bake-at-home shop you did from 2010 to 2013.
Bake 425. We saw that the best pizzeria in America, the best customer-satisfaction ratings year after year, was always Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza. We went out to look at it and thought, "OK, this is an interesting concept." It's one of those things that just didn't resonate. People are like, "Why do I want to bake a pizza myself when I can order one that's already baked?"
You also created a concept called Melt Down, whose specialty was grilled-cheese sandwiches. What happened there?
It melted down. The sales growth we see with Snap is double-digit. People keep coming back, and the word spreads, and people like it. We were doing crazy numbers. Pretty soon, we were doing double what we were doing with Peace A Pizza, then we were doing triple, so we're like, "We got this." I think people loved the novelty, and they came out initially, but it was just something people wouldn't keep coming back to. The perceived value with Snap is off-the-charts high, and our food cost is really good. With Melt Down, it was the perceived value: "Why am I paying $7 for this?" And our food cost was high.
Speaking of food cost, since people can put anything on their pizzas at Snap, how do you control things?
I'm definitely more gluttonous than my wife, in the sense, like, I'll go out and I'll put a ton of toppings on it, whereas for her, regardless of price, she'll put on a couple toppings. I think it balances out, and some people get a better value than others, but it's kind of in the simplicity of it I think. People like that, even if they're getting two toppings. They aren't here because they can put whatever they want on it. The quality's good. Really, if everyone came in and maxed out on the toppings, we'd be out of business … You do see that occasionally, where it's like, "Oh, you should restrict it if somebody … " But it's just that's not what we're about. It's that freedom of choice.
You also own New Hope Premium Fountain, a soda company. What prompted that?
We did an all-organic restaurant called Peace Out right next to the New Hope bridge. It was just kind of a smaller variation of Peace A Pizza. I started investigating the beverage side. You know, fountain beverages are always the most profitable food-cost items. I went back to the Wharton School to the business-basics class. We made it a lower-calorie, juice-sweetened product geared toward schools. That's the Juiced Up line, and then we have the Fountain Fizz line, which is the cane-sugar-sweetened product.
There are lots of pizzerias out there. Who are your competitors?
The Paneras and the Honeygrows and the other fast-casual players, and not as much just the pizza shops. If they're getting 10 pizzas for their kids' baseball game, they're probably going to grab the 10 big pizzas [from a local pizza shop] and bring them to their kids.
If your kids came to you and said they wanted to be in the business, what would you say?
My 7-year-old said to me the other day, "Dad, when you're too old to run Snap and I'm running it, I'm going to give you money, and I'm not going to make you pay me back." I'm like, "Where's this coming from?" And he's like, "And you know why?" He said, "Because you buy all our food, you pay the cable bill, and the electric," and believe me, I don't lord this over his head. He's like, "And that's why you don't have to pay me back, because I know how much you spend on us."