Since setting up shop in D.C. in July 2012, &pizza has quickly become one of the most popular food chains in the area. The flagship location, which opened on Northeast H Street (1118 H St. NE), was followed by an outpost along the U Street Corridor (1250 U St. NW) the following year. Last fall, co-owners Steve Salis and Michael Lastoria said plans to expand—including their first restaurant outside of D.C. proper—were underway. Less than six months later, two additional &pizzas have sprouted as promised, bringing the brand’s vision of the adored neighborhood pizza shop with a modern twist to new communities.
One such locale is D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, where an &pizza opened at the end of April in the Monroe Street Market (664-666 Monroe St. NE). According to Salis, being part of that revitalization project not only aligns perfectly with &pizza’s mission, but helps "take the [the brand] to another level." "I love going into these neighborhoods where we can be at the epicenter of transformation," he says. "Creating that membership-like experience where all are welcome is really our M.O., and Brookland is no different."
Salis also says Brookland was identified as the right neighborhood for &pizza because it’s on the rise. "I think this neighborhood is becoming more and more vibrant," he explains. "This is the hottest area for young professionals to buy homes, [and] I think that speaks volumes to where the neighborhood and community are going."
As with every &pizza location, the neighborhood's spirit is reflected through the restaurant’s design. For the Monroe Street Market property, that characteristic is evolution. "I think the defining thing for Brookland is a sense of edge and progression that’s seen in the different walks of life that have come together to make this neighborhood," Salis explains. That headway is evident in the layout of this particular restaurant, which, aside from the sleek black and white color scheme, boasts the work of local artist Kelly Towles. According to Lastoria, this move is an extension of something that begun with the U Street shop.
"Kelly happened to be in a video we first did about U Street," he says. "I wanted to try and find a way to bring Kelly to Brookland because you don’t see a lot of his work in this community, yet you see a lot of it in Northwest D.C." Aside from drawing Towles to a new section of D.C., Lastoria says they wanted him to boost the location’s creative scheme by having him explore new artistic territory. "We also wanted something a little bit different: You typically see him and his characters," he notes. "We wanted to create [something fresh] to give it more of a rock and roll vibe." Each little detail helps &pizza stand out, especially as it infiltrates the surrounding D.C. suburbs.
On Monday, &pizza opened its first Maryland restaurant in downtown Bethesda (7614 Old Georgetown Rd.), right in the thick of office buildings, schools, and affluence. Salis remains confident about the venture outside of the District. "We like the positioning there," he says. "We’ve made a lot of decisions other brands would never make in these neighborhoods, and there are a lot of interesting opportunities for us there." Salis also notes that the brand is testing a smaller footprint for the first time: "We’re excited to see how that’s going to work," he says.
Lastoria calls it their "schoolhouse store," a nod to Bethesda’s status as one of America’s most well-educated small towns that’s reflected in the restaurant’s one-room schoolhouse layout. Furthermore, in addition to the black and white color pairing that’s become a staple at every &pizza, the Bethesda location sports pickled oak and factory lighting that give it an old-school feel. The large slate ampersand, chalk, and custom illustrations paying homage to Rock n’ Roll High School complete the schoolhouse theme. Each restaurant has something to distinguish it from the next, and more are on the way.
Every location that Steve chooses to sign a deal is a location where our guests have said 'we want you in this neighborhood,' and there’s been a significant enough demand where we felt like we had to go there for them.
After opening two new restaurants within the past month, &pizza’s swift growth will continue. "We have a planned opening for E Street Northwest, which is one storefront down from E Street Cinema, right around the corner from Ford’s Theatre," Salis reveals. What’s more, two more Maryland locations will open in Germantown and Gaithersburg, as will one in yet another densely-populated section of D.C. "We have another property opening up in Germantown, and it was recently announced that we’re opening a property on K Street as well."
The rapid increase in &pizzas has prompted some to accuse the brand of expanding too quickly. Lastoria says there are two reasons for their growth. "The first is that our internal team—which we call our "tribe"—has been developed to tackle new projects," he explains. "The second reason, and possibly more important, is our guests. Every location that Steve chooses to sign a deal is a location where our guests have said 'we want you in this neighborhood,' and there’s been a significant enough demand where we felt like we had to go there for them." The latter part of that rationale goes back to the collaborative relationship between restaurant and business, a cornerstone of &pizza’s purpose.
"We don’t see a reason why there can’t be an &pizza in any community," Salis admits. "We have our ear to the ground, and we’re extremely grateful to the communities that we serve." Lastoria invites customers to voice their opinions, adding that their input is instrumental to helping &pizza improve as a business: "If we get it wrong, tell us," he says.
As &pizza multiplies, Salis and Lastoria remain aware that the tight bond with each neighborhood is key to their success. "The ethos of the brand has everything to do with the communities we serve," Salis says. "We could’ve done a deal in Dupont [Circle] or Penn Quarter starting out, but I don’t think we’d have the business we have today. We’re just in people’s lunches there. We’re in their lives now."
Julian Kimble, lifelong pizza fan, is City Guide's Weapon X. Follow him on Twitter here.