A few weeks back, the folks from NAKED Pizza set up a taste test at my office near Tysons Corner. I heard about the lunch from my colleagues that day – word spreads fast at my office when there’s free food around – and I stopped by to try out some of their product. I was pretty impressed with it, as were most of my coworkers, and when I saw a new location open up near my home in Reston, I decided to order a couple pizzas and write about them. But I was in for a bit of a surprise before I even picked up the phone.
Before calling up the Reston location, I emailed the NAKED press office to inquire about their expansion plans in the DC area. Then, while watching the NBA Finals a couple of nights ago, I got a response. From Mark Cuban himself. No big deal…
I was convinced at first that it was a joke, but then I started Googling. If you’re not a Mavericks fan or otherwise haven’t kept up with Cuban, he invested in NAKED Pizza in 2009 (http://techcrunch.com/2009/05/28/mark-cuban-finalizes-investment-in-nakedpizza-orders-a-slice-of-expansion/). Their story is that Cuban tried out the pizza at their store in New Orleans and loved it – and seriously, if the man can understand a business that quickly, I’m really not surprised that he owns an NBA franchise.
Mr. Cuban offered to put me in touch with his DC franchising team. I may have pressed my luck with my response – I thanked him and said I’d love to chat with him about the NAKED investment if he’s in DC any time soon. But he was cool about it – he mentioned that he’s getting more involved with the company again after a few years away, and in his words, “So far, so good!” I spoke to Mike Egan, the President and COO of the local franchising group, the next day.
Mr. Egan readily acknowledged Mr. Cuban’s hands-on involvement in the company, noting that he’s “very down-to-earth” personally, but is aggressive in the business world, as “he wants to work harder than the guy down the street.” The DC area’s franchise group opened their first store in Pentagon City almost exactly a year ago, followed later that year by the Bethesda location. In early 2012, they opened their stores in McLean and Reston, and have plans to expand to Ballston and Alexandria by the end of 2012.
With the expansion coming so quickly, I speculated that business must be good, and Mr. Egan agreed that their group is “cautiously optimistic,” as they’ve seen steady growth and lots of great responses to their grassroots-style marketing. (Incidentally, at least one of the local group’s advertising tactics included an It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia-style Greenman dancing on street corners in Reston with signs advertising the store – a particularly nice touch to this fan of the show).
He noted “remarkable” excitement among the customers about their product, which he repeatedly touted as healthier than the competition’s. Mr. Egan explained that the company doesn’t view themselves as in the same business category as the big national brands – rather, he said, they differentiate themselves with a higher-quality, “drastically different” pizza. NAKED’s press materials tout its 10-grain pizza crust made with prebiotic agave fiber – yes, the same agave that brings us tequila – and probiotics, as well as its sauce, cheese, veggies, and meat toppings made with “no preservatives” and “no added sugar, antibiotics or hormones.”
Mr. Egan also explained that their marketing team has been working to raise the company’s profile with businesses, schools, and other large purchasers, which seems to be an effective strategy: as I mentioned above, that’s how I first became aware of the locations in the area. He noted that their prices are “competitive” with other pizza joints, if a little higher, but he argued, “You get what you pay for,” describing their strategic aim as being “…the Whole Foods of pizza.”
I was thoroughly intrigued, and since the Reston location was on my way home, I called them just before I left the office one recent evening and ordered a couple of small pizzas. On Mr. Egan’s advice, I tried the “Superbiotic” pizza, one of NAKED’s specialties, topped with artichoke, spinach, bell pepper, mushroom, garlic, red onion, and cilantro. And just to see how they’d do with a standard pizza, I also asked for a thin crust pepperoni pie.
The pepperoni pizza’s crust was almost cracker-thin, with a nice crunch balanced with just enough chew to prevent it shattering on the first bite. But what made this pizza great was the pepperoni – while I’m fairly sure they’re not grinding and slicing artisanal pepperoni on site, the meat slices adorning my pizza were extraordinarily flavorful. I like making pizza at home, and the pepperoni slices I get from the grocery store absolutely pale in comparison to what the NAKED team uses.
Their Superbiotic specialty pizza was also surprisingly good. The sheer number of vegetables they pack onto the crust was impressive, particularly because they didn’t all slide off the top of the pizza when I picked up a slice. I’m not at all a fan of mushrooms, but the other vegetables together made me forget that any were on the pie. And the crust on this one, despite being their “original Ancestral Blend,” was also rolled fairly thin, but not so far as to be floppy. The slices held their shape while not being thick and bready.
Yet the best part was definitely the aftermath. Look, we’ve all been there – having eaten way too much greasy pizza, feeling like we’re going to explode, the pizza sitting in the stomach like a crusty, bready ball – but I got absolutely none of that from NAKED’s products. I finished one of these small pizzas easily, and yet I never felt completely stuffed, greasy, or gross. NAKED touts its pizzas as healthier than the competition (though their press kit acknowledges that it’s not “diet” pizza), but the intangible feeling of not feeling sick after finishing the meal makes their product absolutely unique in my experience.
And while I doubt I’ll be getting too many more personal emails from NBA owners, I have to admit – it’s a rarity that a businessman at that level takes such a hands-on interest in his side investments. Kudos, sir.
Naked Pizza has four locations in the DC area, with more expected to open later this year.
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