“In Mexico we offer an al pastor pizza”: A Q&A with Pizza Pizza CEO Paul Goddard about global expansion and the new mosquito-repelling pies
The Canadian chain recently opened their first international location, in Guadalajara
Paul Goddard took over the CEO role at Canada’s top pizza chain following the death of Pizza Pizza founder Michael Overs (who happened to be Goddard’s father-in-law). Since then, the former Calgary steel man has become a master in slice economics, guiding his company to record profits and, recently, global expansion. “We’ve been toying with the idea for several years. Mexico wasn’t the first place we thought of,” he says of Pizza Pizza’s launch in Guadalajara. Coming out of the pandemic wasn’t easy for any restaurant chain, but Goddard believes his offering is, if not recession proof, then at least recession resistant. Here, he talks worldwide pizza domination and why the new Buzz Off pie is not a substitute for bug spray.
Pizza Pizza recently launched the Buzz-Off Pizza, designed to repel mosquitos. Is that for real?
That was a promotion we launched on Canada Day, kind of a light-hearted way to address the big problem that we often deal with at this time of year. There are real studies that show that many of the toppings—garlic, hot peppers, onion—have natural repellent properties. I’m not saying you should bring it into the middle of the woods, but it does work to some extent.
Are these sorts of promos a way to stand out in a super-competitive market? I’m thinking also of the internet-famous Dip Roller…
That was actually something that started as a joke. Our dips—especially our creamy garlic—have a real cult following, so we thought it would be funny to do something around that for April Fools’ Day—and then it turned out that people actually wanted the rollers. We were inundated with tweets and messages. The rollers never made it onto the official menu, but at one point you could ask for one. We definitely try to come up with creative ways to stand out. Just yesterday we launched our “growflation” campaign.
Which is what, exactly?
You hear people talk about shrinkflation, which is when the packaging of certain products—things like cereal boxes, toilet paper, chocolate bars—gets smaller, but the prices stay the same. So basically you’re paying the the same amount for less. It’s something Canadian consumers are concerned about, so we thought, why not turn the idea on its head and offer more for the same price? So now, when you pay for a small pizza, you get a medium pizza instead.
Can you recall a stunt promo that didn’t land as well with customers?
We did a campaign for the World Cup where we had pizzas with certain toppings for all of the major countries, and that didn’t really work. It turns out that people want to choose what’s on their pizza rather than ordering a predesigned combination that we came up with.
Pizza Pizza is a Canadian institution, but it recently embarked on an international expansion in Mexico. Why now? And why there?
We’ve been toying with the idea of international expansion for several years. Mexico wasn’t the first place we thought of, but about four years ago, we were approached by a Guadalajara-based restaurant group that had some experience bringing American quick-service restaurants into the area. They had spent some time in Canada and were familiar with our brand. They were able to make an excellent business case, including the fact that Mexico is a very fast-growing food service market—it’s growing at about double the rate we’re seeing here in Canada. And their pizza consumption is high—probably second in the world to the US.
Higher than Italy?
Right—obviously the Italians know their pizza, but we’re talking about the quick-service restaurant category, so it’s a bit different. And in this category, pizza in Mexico is starting to see parity with foods like burritos and tacos.
Why do you think that is? Other than pizza being delicious and all.
I think the price point is a differentiator. You can feed a whole family with a pizza, and it’s also a good meal for big groups. In Mexico, even more so than in North America, they have a lot of large social gatherings, so people see pizza as a good option in those scenarios.
If pizza is already popular in Mexico, how do you stand apart?
I think we have a few things that set us apart. For starters, we sell slices, which is unique in that market and a really convenient on-ramp—a way for people to try us out. Right after we launched in Guadalajara, I was hanging out at a coffee shop across the street from our store, just to see how people reacted. There were these two older women who went in. Each of them came out with a slice, and then 20 minutes later, they came back and left with a couple boxes of pizza. I guess they liked what they tried.
Are the toppings in Mexico different from what Canadians are used to?
Yes and no. One of the things we do with any expansion is prioritize consistency. You can order a Pizza Pizza pepperoni slice in downtown Toronto or northern BC and it should taste exactly the same. We put a lot of effort into training our franchisees, and the same is true in this case. We had representatives come up from Mexico to Canada to train with our pizza team. And then of course we do everything we can to make sure all the ingredients we use come from the same suppliers: the same flour in the dough, the same cheese, the same California tomatoes. But we also have toppings that are customized to the local market. In Mexico, we offer an al pastor pizza that’s topped with delicious, spicy pulled pork. You can’t get that in Canada.
Well, we’re looking into how we might adapt it for Canada, so we’ll see. I’d like to say it was our innovation, but it actually arose during the training sessions. Local employees were ordering plain cheese pizza, then ordering al pastor from a nearby food truck and topping their pizza with it.
Genius! Do they use more hot peppers as pizza toppings in Mexico?
Hot peppers are definitely a popular topping there, but they’re pretty popular in Canada too—both jalapenos and banana peppers.
Where are you eyeing next in terms of expansion?
I think an extension of Latin America will make sense, just in terms of our expertise there now, such as our Spanish language skills. And then we’re looking at China and India given the vast size of their markets. And also the Middle East. Certain European markets have potential, but they’re a lot like the US—hyper-competitive. We want to choose places where we can be a big player and make a splash.
You’re the son-in-law of Pizza Pizza founder Michael Overs. Does that make you a culinary nepo baby?
Ha! I don’t think I’ve heard that before. When I started at Pizza Pizza in 2009, it was supposed to be temporary. I had come in to do some IT work, and my responsibilities kept expanding. I was lucky enough to have some time working with my father-in-law before his passing in 2010, and of course I knew him for many years before that. He was a great innovator, taking what was essentially a start-up and scaling it into the biggest pizza chain in Canada. He came from a different generation of leadership—I think my approach is probably more holistic and consensus driven.
But did you have the same taste in pizza?
We were both pepperoni lovers. He wasn’t a hot peppers guy, but I am.
Earlier this year, you did an interview with BNN Bloomberg where you said that the pizza business was “recession proof.” Is that still the case?
I think what I said is that pizza is recession resistant, and a lot of that goes back to what I was saying about cost. You can feed a family of four for $16.99 with our extra-large four-topping special. I love burgers, but the price adds up when you’re ordering individual meals for each person. And then the other pro is that pizza travels and reheats really well. Other fast food has a tendency to get soggy.
Did people eat more pizza during the pandemic?
In 2020, our overall numbers were down about 12 per cent, which is not small in a normal year, but compared with other restaurants that were down 50 to 80 per cent, we were in good shape. And our delivery numbers almost doubled. So people definitely ate more pizza at home, and those numbers have held strong two years later. Plus, our pickup and eat-in traffic are both back to their pre-pandemic levels.
In terms of competitors, are you mostly focused on other quick-service joints, or are you also vying against the fancy-schmancy places that do Neapolitan wood-fired pies and offer toppings like duck confit?
I think both. We’re always keeping an eye on industry trends, including the higher-end options. The thing with us is that, when we consider something, we’re looking at three things. The first is, Do our customers want this? I think something like duck confit is probably too niche to work for us, but certainly there are premium ingredients with broader appeal. Next, we look at whether we can execute it and make it profitable. So, Neapolitan crust: delicious, definitely, but the time and labour required doesn’t work within our model, where we are producing a pizza every minute on busy Friday and Saturday nights. So, instead, we came up with an alternative: the Gourmet Thin, which is the same dough but in a super-thin 10-inch pizza. We use Kalamata olives and fresh feta as toppings for that one. It’s not Neapolitan, but it is definitely delicious. It’s funny that you used the term “fancy-schmancy,” because that was actually a tag line from an ad we ran in Calgary: “fancy pizza without the schmancy prices.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.