&pizza Co-founder and CEO Michael Lastoria and Jenna discuss how &pizza’s values and culture prioritizing their tribe’s personal growth, creativity and wellbeing have been the undercurrent of their success expanding to nearly 30 pizza shops in seven years.
We chat about accepting change and pressure as constant forces in our lives and leaning into them, our responsibility to teach ourselves lessons to avoid self inflicted suffering, as well as earning the right to grow by consistently being the best version of ourselves and never compromising our core.
We also discuss how the solution to many of our problems – personally, professionally and societally – lies in the courage to have honest conversations with people with the intent of truly listening to and receiving what they are sharing in order to better understand them and ourselves.
Key Learnings and Highlights
- On giving in to our ongoing self-development: “Every hour of every day you are on a journey. And, that journey is going to constantly shape who you are. So, you are going to constantly be shaped into a different human being. Cells regenerate so technically you are a different person. The notion is that life is about experiences and experiences change people. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It’s very important that everyone understands that there is nothing that you can do. As a result of it, I think that you give in to and are open to more change by understanding that there is a limit to what you can control versus what you can’t. That to me, is the most important: Giving in. You are going to be a product of the people you surround yourself with and the experiences that you have. Some of that can be controlled and some of it can’t be. So, just let it go and let yourself evolve. And, if it means that you completely change – your values, your perspective or your point of view – in the next five years then so be it because that is meant to happen. The same applies to business as well. I realized that there is only so much I can control, because by default a company is like a human being which is a living, breathing organism that is going to constantly grow and change. All you can do is be the best version of yourself and make the best decisions that you can that day. When your head hits the pillow at night, you just have to be okay with it turning out the way it is supposed to turn out. You can’t manage and control every aspect of it.”
- On pursuing meaning and purpose over profit: “I have changed 180 degrees in the last 10 years from who I was in my 20s. I grew up in a very small town, called a hamlet, of a little less than 500 people. Going from such a small town to living in New York City at 22 years old, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of looking at things and living. I ended up starting my own business because I had no choice. It was either go into sales or start my own business. I tried sales for six weeks and it didn’t work out very well. I just didn’t like the idea of making 200 – 300 cold calls a day. It was kind of sucking the life out of me…Starting my first business growing up in a small country town and not experiencing a ton of wealth, making money was really interesting to me. So, the focal point of my first business was really wrapped in the idea of how do I make money and build a business that makes money. I got lucky. I had an amazing business partner, Ian Gray. We built this company and sold it in under four years and we made money. The irony was, and I remember the day that it happened, the next day I woke up and I felt like I had lost something. And, I think what I had lost, is that I had spent the last four years focusing on how to enrich myself and focusing on a time and a place where things were going to be different. The reality of it is, when it happened nothing changed. I felt like I gave four years up for a thing and I didn’t really enjoy the journey of what those things brought me. When I say the journey I mean the day in and day out of what it was to surround myself with a group of people, build a special company and everything that came along with it. I made a commitment to myself that I was going to build a business not for some end game or enriching myself but for building a business that I felt was meaningful and impactful and that I was going to enjoy what I was doing every hour of the day. It is definitely what guided me to start &pizza.”
- On staying in the weeds: “In a multi-unit restaurant concept something is always broken…That often times is what steers people away from building businesses like this because it is a 7 day a week 24 hours a day business and it doesn’t stop. If your entire focal point is trying to get out of that, you actually lose out on all of the nuances and all of the things that do break in terms of how they can be great learning experiences about things like: Was the business ready to grow or was it not? Did we get ahead of ourselves? Are we potentially suffering from ingestion, taking on more than we should as a company? What do I learn about the culture of a pizza shop or company when something breaks and how do we go about fixing it? Who are the leaders that are stepping up and what values are they using to make those decisions? How are we doing collectively at problem solving? I know it’s very important to get leverage on yourself but it’s also embracing the fact that living in the weeds is okay. I’m not trying to do anything but learn with my ear to the ground about how to build a better company and create a better culture. I’ve embraced that element now, rather than opposing something that could really chew you up and spit you out and make doing this not nearly as fun as it ought to be.”
- On leaning into stress: “Pressure doesn’t just come from doing more. It can also come from doing less. I think even when I wasn’t working and was younger I still felt an immense amount of pressure and probably the same amount that I feel today building a much bigger company. It’s one of those things you need to understand: That constant level of stress is always going to be there. No matter what you are doing in life you are going to find it. So, how do you lean in to it versus backing away from it? How do you address the very issues first off by internalizing, because I think that is the most important thing in terms of being empathetic and being willing to make changes to yourself, in terms of: What was my role in this pressure that is being applied? How did I maybe handle these things in a way that put me in this situation? Versus just accepting the fact that I am in this situation and trying to do my best with it. I always believe that there is a lesson in everything and I need to be the one to teach myself those lessons so I can avoid having those issues come back time and time again as more self-inflicted wounds. I think that general mentality of understanding it is going to be there, leaning into it, trying to understand it, and then trying to course correct along the way is really important personally and professionally to ensure that you can move on and do different things. You aren’t dealing with the same things over and over.”
- On turning inward during dark moments: “The thing about dark moments is that you are generally inside: You’re inside yourself, your own head and your body. By default, that forces you to internalize. What I have found is that when you are there you are not necessarily getting out of there because of a phone call you are making. You are getting out because you found a way to get yourself out. I think there can be a lot of clarity when your back is against the wall and you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, stress, and pressure; Be it personal, professional, or anything happening in your life. You are forced to deal with it because you have to or you will break. That’s a really important thing. I have always found for myself that some of the best decisions I have made are when I was forced or when I put myself in those situations. What I learned from them going forward was tremendous.”
- On surviving do or die moments: “There were plenty of moments when this business could have ceased to exist. Whether it was an issue with the other co-founder early on, the business running out of cash at one point, issues that we had with a minority shareholder investor in the company, or just being challenged for trying to build a values based business by those who felt like there should be a heightened sense on the bottom line asking questions like: Is this the right thing to do to pay a fair wage? Is it the economical thing to do? There have been a lot of challenges that have happened, some expected, some unexpected. But, this whole notion of ‘What can go wrong will go wrong’ has very much felt like that is this business. But, the irony is, I’m also so proud of the decisions that we made in those times and how we have been able to internalize and look at them by looking at our core values in the business, what we are trying to do collectively, and using that as a true north to help us make the decision that we might not have had the background or experience to make. This is a great example of a company that has faced a lot of adversity and is the type of company it is because of those very moments.”
- On growing the right way: “At the end of the day, if we can’t be the best version of ourselves then we haven’t earned the right to grow. Growth for us isn’t about growth for growth’s sake. People like to brag a lot about ‘We’re going to up 50 restaurants or in these countries!’ That feels great to say but the challenge with that is that we are in the people business. I always like to say an idea is a great starting place and ideas are necessary to create companies. But, businesses succeed or fail because of the people within it. In a business like &pizza, we can’t maintain, protect and preserve our culture if we aren’t able to develop leaders from within. What I mean by that, is creating programs and infrastructure to take someone who is part time and hourly to full time and salary, teaching them the qualities of leadership, what we value, how to run a pizza shop the &pizza way but doing it with your own unique style because we value that as well. If our leaders are not being developed from within it is going to hurt the culture. There is no way I can open up an &pizza in Boston or Miami and go hire a bunch of people who have no idea where this company has been, what our history is, why we do the things we do, and how we make decisions. Because then we will look like every other restaurant company on the planet earth and that just doesn’t work. That is a classic example of us being completely beholden to our ability to develop leaders to earn our right to grow…If the first pizza shop that we built isn’t getting better every single year as a result of the 29 others that we have then we need to hit the pause button. We’ve hit the pause button two times because we wanted to grow more so than I felt we were capable of because we didn’t have the right systems and processes. We had to catch ourselves because we got caught up in the rat race of just chasing getting big for the sake of getting big. Now, we’re very thoughtful. The finance department is the last place we go to figure out whether we can grow. It really starts with human resources asking: How many leaders are ready to run &pizzas? That’s the first funnel in terms of making sure that if we have 10 leaders we will open up 8 pizza shops. Just making sure that we are never getting ahead ourselves. I think that is the fundamental reason why we have I think significant room for growth because we are doing it smart, thoughtfully, and carefully to make sure we are protecting the house at all times.”
- On culture as your competitive advantage: “It’s really, really, really hard to build a company that has the right culture for the brand. If you are able to do that I think that in and of itself can be the reason why your business wins while another with a similar product or service doesn’t. It’s even more important when you get it right, that you double down on it and consistently invest in it so you don’t mess it up. And, the easiest way to mess it up is to grow ahead of what the organization is prepared for.”
- On having awkward conversations: “An awkward conversation is one that you tend to avoid because it takes you outside of your comfort zone, your personality, or how you like to communicate. For me, I do it because I believe that it is better for the other person to be told candidly versus sugarcoating it or sidestepping it…Hitting issues square on is really important because it allows you to deal with them and move on. Often times we are conditioned to not want to do that because it is very hard to do. The more conditioned you get in life and business you are just better off. Whether it’s a girlfriend, boyfriend, sibling, colleague, co-worker, whatever the situation might be, if you are feeling something and you are thoughtful about getting to the core of what it is you are feeling, it’s important that you communicate that, as awkward at that may be, because that is how you express yourself and how people learn about you. It is ultimately how two people in any relationship figure out if this relationship makes sense across the board. That, to me, was an important lesson learned because I avoided a number of those conversations early on in my life only to lead to relationships that then built a ton of resentment in them and ended up being worse for it. If I would have had a different conversation six months ago, I may be able to still have a relationship with this person. Because I didn’t, they didn’t understand the reason why I was behaving or acting a certain way and started to dislike me. Now there is no way to bring that back in because that ship has sailed and that is directly on me for not being willing to do that…When everyone knows where they stand with you they are just that much more comfortable being themselves around you, opening up, and sharing their hopes, goals, dreams, and secrets. So, how do you get to a place where you are having conversations with people where you feel comfortable? It starts with everyone feeling and understanding exactly where they stand in your eyes. That is extraordinarily important.”
- On truly listening and receiving: “When you have a relationship with someone where they literally subscribe to the two ears one mouth philosophy, which is a really good one to subscribe to, there is this notion that you are being heard. And, whether or not it is fully being absorbed by the other person, if they are making a conscious effort to put down their phone, look you in the eye, listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth and to take to their heart what you are actually saying, I think it can be one of the most transformative experiences in this modern age that we are living in because it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should. I have found that most issues can be solved when we are willing to actually receive what the other person is saying. And, if you really try to have empathy and understand where that person is coming from there is probably a lot that you can give back to help that person think through whatever they are dealing with in life and get them to that next chapter.”