In the summer of 2006, the Uptown section of New Orleans got a new pizza joint. A 500 square foot hole in the wall that had been six feet deep in water less than a year earlier. It wasn’t much to look at and its owners had stuck with possibly the least appealing name to anyone who was out for a quick neighborhood slice. The place was called World’s Healthiest Pizza.
For Jeff Leach, the man behind it, the restaurant was an experiment. It was the research lab, in a city now full of them, where he set out to make a pizza out of all-natural ingredients — without processed flours, synthetic cheeses, or chemically preserved toppings, and still packed with probiotics and whole grains. The challenge, as most health nuts understand, was making something that did not taste like warmed up cardboard with cheese. “The first few pizzas we made, you couldn’t even eat them,” says Leach, an archaeologist by training. “They were that bad.”
But through trial and error, Leach and his co-founder Randy Crochet, a real estate investor, improved the product. Customers dropped in to taste the latest prototypes and World’s Healthiest Pizza became a local success, despite a name that rang vaguely of late-night infomercials. “We were a bit of a curiosity,” Leach says.
It was around that time that a New Orleans branding specialist named Robbie Vitrano caught wind of it. Within months, he joined Crochet and Leach’s business and immediately changed the name to Naked Pizza. Since then, the three men have turned Naked Pizza into a revolutionary model, an “advocacy brand,” in the fight to promote healthier eating.
“The company started as a way to really use a business construct to address a social problem,” says Vitrano, a featured speaker last month at The Daily Beast’s Innovators Summit in New Orleans. “Primarily, obesity and chronic disease related to lifestyle and diet. We’ve lost our relationship to the common sense of how and what we should eat. The whole mission was to say, ‘In one small way, can we use this Trojan horse to start a conversation around this common sense.’”
The first realization they made was that, if they were going to make an impact on how we feed ourselves, they would need a radically different tack. “It’s a problem that’s being addressed by a lot of quackery or silver-bullet theories,” says Vitrano. “And what’s failed is lecturing. What’s failed is going on Oprah and telling people what they should eat. What’s failed is a pharmaceutical approach.”
“It’s just about saying this is a food that tastes better, and that it’s going to make you feel good.”
The second was that Public Enemy No. 1—fast food—could never be defeated. It is too entrenched in American society to ever be dislodged. So they planned to embrace fast food’s cultural pervasiveness and apply the model to something that was actually nutritious.
But for the plan to take off, their pizza had to taste like pizza. With a list of ingredients that includes 10 whole grains, agave fiber and probiotics, it started out as a tall order. And because customers tend not to like their comfort food served with a biology lesson, they chose not to beat them over the head with it. They even chose to ignore the buzzword that is “organic.”
The mission is similar to, say, Whole Foods’, but with a delivery system designed for a more mainstream audience. Vitrano explained that their customers tend to women, often with children, who need a solution for a healthy dinner when they are out of ideas at 4 p.m.
“It’s just about saying this is a food that tastes better, and that it’s going to make you feel good,” Vitrano says.
“The business model doesn’t work if it’s Whole Foods prices,” he added, specifying that their costs are only 2 to 5 percent higher than those of a common pizza business. “It needs to be accessible. Our prices have to be aligned with Papa John’s and Domino’s.”
And the final key to any fast food enterprise, Naked Pizza understood, is that it must be local. Currently, Naked Pizza successfully operates five locations. Its Louisville, Kentucky restaurant moves between $2,000 and $3,000 worth of pizza every night. But Vitrano says that there are also 400 more under contract, in places as far flung as Dubai. All of them should be open at some point in the next five years. In parallel, Naked Pizza has grown its image as a modern advocacy brand by publishing nutrition information, special offers and interacting with its customers through social media. Twitter became their main tool for generating buzz. As a controlled experiment last year, for instance, a promotion sent out exclusively via Twitter accounted for 15 percent of a day’s business at the New Orleans location.
“Because of that,” Vitrano says, “we’ve been able to punch above our weight.” And take on a problem too many others have given up on.
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.