If you had visited an &pizza in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday afternoon, you may have found co-founder and CEO Michael Lastoria making the chain’s signature rectangular pies.
"In times like these 'all hands on deck is the only policy,'" Lastoria tweeted, along with photos of him sprinkling ingredients on a pizza behind the prep line. The back of his shirt reads "UNITY."
Unity has been a guiding principle for the 40-unit, Washington, D.C.-based chain in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, as restaurants across the country scramble with immediate dine-in closures and a workforce full of hourly workers scared for their livelihood.
In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday ordered restaurants to close their dining rooms. Local chains and restaurant groups are already gutting their payrolls. Twelve-unit Compass Coffee cut a staggering 90% of its 200 employees just yesterday, according to Popville, and Hill Restaurant Group plans to shut down four of its six restaurants and begin letting workers go.
But &pizza is taking a radically different approach. Instead of reducing staff, it's actually paying employees more.
Last week, Lastoria announced in a letter to employees that the company would raise its hourly wages by $1 for all restaurant-level workers.
The move is part of a comprehensive action plan that the chain hopes will help it emerge stronger on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, president and COO Andy Hooper told Restaurant Dive.
"In a moment like this, we think about what are the most common insecurities [for our employees]," Hooper said. "Obviously there’s going to be financial insecurity, there might be food insecurity and there’s going to be at least anxiety, if not insecurity, when it comes to transportation. And so that’s what drove the elements that we attempted to solve for our team."
&pizza has also moved 35 of its roughly 50 corporate employees from the company's D.C. headquarters to area restaurants, where they are working alongside front-line staff. When Hooper took our call on Monday, he was sitting in &pizza's original H Street location, where he will be working for the duration of the COVID-19 disruption.
"In a moment like this, we think about what are the most common insecurities [for our employees]."
President and COO, &pizza
"One of the things that is most important is that we stay close to the people serving our guests so we can get a better read on and be more fleet of foot with what the next response needs to be," Hooper said. “It ensures that we can make speedy, accurate, thoughtful, considerate and kind decisions about what we do and when… You can only get that by being face-to-face with the people making it happen."
Though corporate &pizza employees have been trained to make pizzas as part of their onboarding, Hooper said that corporate support staff have been moved to restaurants to help with guest interactions and enforce social distancing in stores, which are now only offering delivery & carryout.
"I’ve been talking to guests all day here at H Street about how they’re feeling, how to download the app… helping them prepare for a very real likelihood that if most, if not all, municipalities go to some sort of limited-service model, even entering the restaurant might not be allowed," he said.
The chain is also fostering a sense of solidarity by giving its workforce daily updates through a new text-line support system, which is managed by employees still stationed at its corporate office. The text updates, along with deploying corporate staff to work shoulder to shoulder with hourly employees, have helped keep workers nimble and informed, Hooper said.
"We have no idea what the future looks like when it comes to how long this lasts… and we told [employees] that we will probably be adding new [initiatives] or pivoting based on feedback," he said.
So far, &pizza has offered employees $5 one-way Lyft rides so they don't have to take public transportation amid virus concerns, 14 days of paid sick leave for workers diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 and unlimited free pizza for workers and their families. The company has also expanded its standard sick leave benefit so that new employees can use it immediately and that all workers can use it to care for sick family members or watch children who are home due to school closures. All of these offerings will be available for at least the next 30 days.
These benefits go far beyond the emergency sick leave packages major chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Panera are offering in response to COVID-19 concerns — benefits Hooper considers "table stakes" in today’s environment.
"Decisions are made pretty quickly," Hooper said. "Many of the things that we are doing right now are things that we planned on or already do, which are definitely aligned with the purpose and the values of the company."
And despite the layoffs being announced at numerous restaurants, &pizza is determined to keep its hourly workers on the job, even as local governments continue to tighten restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus.
"There may be a situation where two weeks from now it only makes sense for us to use half the hours we’re using today to operate our business," Hooper said. "We’re looking for creative ways to use those hours. Do we start training programs for future managers? Do we consider creating our own delivery fleet? We’re going to be creative because we want full employment for our ‘Tribe’ and want them fully deployed against the needs out there, which is [that] people still need to eat."
One way the chain is maintaining demand to keep employees working is by offering free pizzas to hospital workers, echoing its free pizza offering for federal employees and contractors during the government shutdown in January of last year. Hooper estimates the company gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars of pie during the shutdown. Still, the company can maintain profitability at roughly one-third of its standard volumes.
"It’s not a terribly profitable endeavor, but it’s a very worthwhile one that keeps people moving,” Hooper said. “Our mantra has always been that in times of crisis, keeping the team at full employment and keeping guests in and out of the pizza shop — or in and out of the virtual pizza shop — is the top priority."
Hooper is confident that even in a scenario where &pizza needs to reduce operations, the chain will be able to keep its employees fully employed.
"It’s important for business leaders to step up and lead with compassion in a moment like this and to meet the needs of their hourly staff when there’s a ton of damage going on in the industry in the short term," Hooper said. "We want [our employees] to know that when the going got tough, we thought of and invested in them rather than ran away from them."