How do you know when you’ve found your calling? Most would agree that it’s when you find success doing something you love. Not everyone knows what their calling is right away; but when you finally find it, there’s no mistaking it.
Carl Chang didn’t start out in the pizza business. He followed a less straightforward path—first navigating the world of sports, as coach for tennis star (and younger brother) Michael Chang, before building a career in real estate development.
But through all of it, one concept persisted in his mind: the idea of food as a means to bring families and communities together through good times and hard times alike.
By 2007, Chang was brainstorming ideas for breaking into the restaurant industry. That desire crystallized in 2008 when the recession hit.
“A lot of our friends and children’s friends were going through a lot of financial hard times, and how it reflected back to me—and how Pieology came to have true meaning—was that I wanted to use it as a way to reinvent a segment that was a bit broken,” says Chang.
As the concept of the fast casual, build-your-own-pizza chain began to take shape, so did a deeper reason for being.
"I always remembered pizza as a point of celebration,” he explains.
"Instead of this discounted convenience food it had become, how could we portray an environment where, in hard times like the recession, people could enjoy designing and creating their most beloved food in an environment that inspires, and that embraces community? An environment where, if you’re not having the best day, you can resonate with one of the quotes on the board and feel a little bit better?
"Where those that are in a better situation in life, feel inspired to help others as well?"
Understanding that feeling and that sense of community, says Chang, is how Pieology became Pieology. By 2011 the concept was ready to launch, and a calling was found.
The business behind the concept
Pieology may have been based on concepts more personal than financial projections and growth models, but business knowledge and leadership are nonetheless critical for any fast casual concept to thrive.
Chang and his executive team show a keen understanding of this, and the proof is in the numbers: with tripled sales and unit growth in 2014, consulting firm Technomic recently named Pieology the fastest growing restaurant chain of the year, earning the pizza chain a coveted No. 1 spot at the top of the firm’s Technomic Top 500 list.
For Pieology, finding a balance between corporate and franchised locations has helped the chain achieve a sweet spot of growth and brand alignment.
"Originally my vision was to be 100 percent corporate, because I have a little bit of a different motivation at a personal level," says Chang. But before long his sports background and competitive nature served to propel Pieology toward a different path—a selective form of franchising that would more effectively drive growth while above all staying true to the chain’s mission statement.
"What I wanted to do was try to find the most sophisticated groups who have the capability to operate at the highest level, and really believe in the purpose Pieology is serving,” says Chang.
"That meant higher touch points, more community involvement, and giving back as part of that strategy—we require our GMs to do two-to-three outreaches within their community in every period as a mandate of the responsibility."
With a rigorous vetting process, finding the right operators with the right motivations can be more time consuming—but in the long run it has helped the brand stay unified, growing and preserving its reputation.
[Related: Top 10: US franchises 2014]
"What I believe we have, if I’ve done my job well enough, is a great alignment of our culture and commitment with our in-store leaders, the ones who represent the brand on an everyday basis—making them part of the environment and a part of that feeling of making a difference.”
Alignment and the art of leadership through example
Chang is a big believer in alignment, whether that’s an alignment of ideals with franchise partners or an alignment of business strategies. The latter is a driving force behind Pieology’s commitment to keeping 30 percent of all locations corporate-owned.
"I believe in having skin in the game—as the founder of Pieology and a believer in the brand, I have to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk," says Chang.
"If we represent a significant portion of the stores developed across the nation, and we’re one of the best operators in the system, then I have a fair voice to share with our other top operators. We operate our stores, we operate successfully, and we’re able to give back."
That representation through action is a significant example of Pieology’s executive leadership model.
[Related: [Infographic] Six qualities of great leaders]
As Chang explained: "Some of our competitors may have more of a 100 percent franchise model, but my perspective on that is: How do you encourage your operators to operate a certain way, when you don’t have personal experience to be able to draw from or share from?
"That to me is a philosophical difference that I struggle with. I think if you’re properly aligned, you share in the rewards, but you share in the risk—and then you can relate better as you teach."
Pushing the envelope on quality
While business strategy is vital, what keeps consumers coming back is the food.
Born and raised in New York, where pizza is not just dinner but a culture, Chang is aware of that importance and is committed to pushing the envelope where quality is concerned, starting with fresh dough and fresh sauce made in-house each day and moving further into concepts like organics from there.
"As we continue to increase our buying power, most look to reduce their cost of goods sold because they’re trying to increase margin," says Chang. "My perspective is that, if our margin is reasonable enough, I want to continue to push the level of quality of our product."
Chang attributes that desire to a simple love for great food and a desire to share it with Pieology consumers.
"As we’re allowed to continue to push that envelope, we’ll continue to push that envelope across the board and continue to try and stay relevant," he says.
"We won’t be all things to all people—but what we can do is try to appease our loyal followers and consumer base by continuing to drive the very best product, and continuing to be price conscious without trying to drive price."
Putting people first
"The thing I found most rewarding as we first started the concept is that, unlike those that came and developed after, our purpose was true and sincere," says Chang.
"What I appreciate is that all of our growth up to a certain point was very organic. All of our posts, all our pictures—that was all from our followers, our consumer base; people that fell in love with Pieology. None of that was developed by us. That came from a very sincere place."
That sincerity has been mutual, from the core concept of endless pizza opportunities created by each individual, to programs that give back to communities—Chang brings special attention to Chicken Lavigne as one of the chain’s first major campaigns to give back, inspired by James Lavigne, a young culinary student and frequent visitor to Pieology’s Fullerton location.
After learning that Lavigne had lost his fight with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and reaching out to his family, Pieology put one of his favorite pizza combinations on the menu as a featured special—through this, even in the early days of the restaurant, Pieology and its consumers were able to raise five digits for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma research. It’s a touching story for Chang, and a representation of his vision for the brand.
"For me, I want Pieology to be everyone else’s: I want it to serve a purpose for every person, every individual, in hopefully the most positive way," says Chang. "It’s not mine. It’s not Carl’s company.
"What I care most about is celebrating our Pieologists—the people that come in and feel inspired. We embrace our consumers. We have more touch points than everyone else because we want a relationship with our people. Quite frankly, I think that’s why we’ve had success in our growth: I believe it comes from a very true and sincere place."
Focusing on growth
"At the end of the day, most of us feel equally if not more rewarded by seeing us make a difference in other peoples’ lives than just strictly a monetary reward—I think a balance of the two is critical," says Chang. That balance is evident in the pizza chain’s trajectory.
"While the business growth may be due to making personal connections, those personal connections can’t continue without further business growth. So Pieology is focused on growth, as long as it’s organic and steady, and not simply a race to the top.
"We’re approaching 600 commitments now, and our corporate strategy is continuing to grow our footprint,” says Chang.
"With that said, we’re always going to be focused on customer service and engaging with our consumers. That means aggressive yet steady growth—very calculated, very strategic. We won’t grow for the sake of growing, because to me, the first person to 3,000 units is not the winner.
"To me it’s about stewardship—trying to set up systems and long term success, rather than short term wins."
Click here to read the September 2015 edition of Business Review USA!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the August 2015 edition of Business Review USA. Click here to read the issue. )