Michael Lastoria cuts a curious figure on Capitol Hill: black cloak, black jeans, black Wu Wear boots. His hair hangs past his shoulders; his beard brings to mind the Amish. But he sails through the metal detectors of the Rayburn House Office Building--the hub of the House of Representatives--like a pro, marching down the hall to the cafeteria, where a line snakes around a glossy, black L-shaped structure of screens and glass. This is the 33rd location of Lastoria's fast-casual restaurant, &Pizza (say: "and pizza"). While it looks like a food stall that would be at home in some terribly hip neighborhood, in this government building, flanked by a carpeted dining room with Formica tables that may have last been updated in the '70s, it stands out, much like Lastoria himself--who, quietly, has become the perhaps unlikely auteur of tomorrow's restaurant.
"They actually approached us to build a location here," says Lastoria. Every &Pizza location has a unique nickname; he toyed with calling this one the Blue Wave. Politics being what they are, he couldn't. So shop No. 33 is known as the Influence, and a mission statement, of sorts, adorning one of its gleaming black walls reads in part: "Where it all takes shape. Where decisions are made. Where pioneers walk and walls talk."
If that sounds like a lofty goal for a place that slings $10 pies, it mirrors Lastoria's ambitions. The chain has 36 locations along the East Coast. Lastoria, who co-founded &Pizza with D.C. restaurateur Steve Salis and serves as CEO, has plans for 47 by year's end, and nearly $60 million in funding to model a new kind of restaurant: a technologically optimized, partially automated enterprise that endeavors to do good while serving good food. (During the recent government shutdown, &Pizza gave away $300,000 worth of pizza to federal workers.)
Lastoria, 39, grew up in the hamlet of Fillmore, New York-- population 600, give or take. He founded his first company, the ad-tech firm Innovation Ads, in 2002. "It's that 'hillbilly goes to New York City, gets lucky, and sells his company within four years' kind of story," he says. He sold his next venture, the advertising agency JWalk, to the cosmetics giant Shiseido in 2017. But he wanted something different--to "figure out the work I was meant to do," he says. He took a hard look at restaurants, which employ some of the country's lowest-paid hourly wage workers. "I thought, if I could use this business as a case study for doing good and taking care of people who dedicate their time and energy to the business, that would be a powerful message," he says.
According to Lastoria, all of &Pizza's approximately 750 hourly workers make at least $2 above their local minimum wage; he's aiming to get all of his employees--he calls them his tribe--to at least $15 per hour by 2020. Beyond paying his people more than "big pizza"--shorthand for the likes of Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa John's--Lastoria is using technology to leapfrog it.
This year, some &Pizza locations will deploy "dough bots" made by Zume--a Bay Area restaurant services and logistics startup valued at $2.25 billion. "We're automating boring, dangerous, repetitive work," like mixing dough and sliding pies into 800-degree ovens, says Zume CEO Alex Garden. Lastoria insists this is not to cut staff, vowing he'll "never lay off people" because of robots and automation. He says that the dough bots will bring about "operational improvements and the ability to repurpose employees to elevate the customer experience."
Zume is also building an &Pizza fleet of mobile commissaries--essentially smart food trucks equipped with electric appliances and Wi-Fi to receive orders--that can get fresh pies to customers' doors with little to no lag time. "If it takes 30 to 45 minutes from placing an order to its being on a conference table, I can guarantee your pizza is going to be lukewarm at best," says Lastoria. But if those orders are beamed directly to the trucks, "the production is happening on the way." He expects this will halve delivery times. (At least one human--far fewer workers than at a typical &Pizza shop--will drive the truck and prepare the pizza, until, presumably, that can be done by robots too.) &Pizza currently has two such trucks on the road, and they're helping determine the locations of future full-fledged restaurants and "cubes"--smaller locations that can be installed in existing structures, like the Rayburn Building. "Gone are the days," says Lastoria, "where food has to be contained to the four walls of a restaurant."
Also this summer, &Pizza will shift from an app-based ordering system to a text-to-order platform. "That is the way that most people communicate," says Lastoria. "You can't call an &Pizza. You can't email us. We won't respond." His communication preferences run deep: All &Pizza employees have his personal cellphone number, and most internal business is conducted over text message.
The text-to-order platform is powered by a combination of employees and A.I.-informed bots that respond conversationally to requests. They're fluent in Millennial: "Can I add extra sauce?" elicits "Of course!" followed by a GIF of Rihanna grinning and winking. Before getting hired, applicants for the text-to-order team are quizzed on pop culture touchstones such as Lady Gaga's monsters and Justin Bieber's Beliebers. "We're figuring out what can we automate without losing the brand's personality," says Lastoria.
All that automation and &Pizza's variety of formats could allow the company to expand more swiftly. Of course, it helps that it's selling a product beloved by all. Back at shop No. 33 in the Rayburn Building, Lastoria cocks his head at the old-style commissary nearby, stocked with cold, shrinkwrapped sandwiches. "You should see what they're serving behind those doors," he says. "There's a reason my location is always busy."