March 17, 2014 // Franchising.com // Calabasas, Calif. - A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent his active duty onboard a Trident submarine, Samit Varma learned firsthand the importance of exceeding expectations while in the military.
The experience served him well, because the 36-year-old is surpassing expectations again while turning plenty of heads as co-founder of Pizza Studio, a fast-casual franchise concept looking to move to the forefront of one of the hottest segments in the restaurant industry.
Despite having only one location – opened in January 2013 outside the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles – Varma, along with co-founder and restaurant industry veteran Ron Biskin, already have development agreements for over 160 franchise locations nationwide.
The buzz surrounding the potential of Pizza Studio – where guests create their own custom pizza masterpiece that is baked in minutes – is evidenced by its most recent development agreement. Studio 37, LLC of San Jose, Calif. has signed a deal to develop 25 new restaurants throughout the greater San Francisco metro area. The managing member of Studio 37 is Jeff Burrill, who also serves as the managing member of Pangenera, LLC, a multi-unit developer of Panera Bread in the San Francisco Bay area.
Studio 37 joins a Pizza Studio franchisee roster that already includes Lloyd Sugarman, co-founder and largest franchisee of Johnny Rockets, who has committed to opening 12 restaurants in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The made-to-order pizza niche is expected to be the next hot concept in the already-hot fast-casual food segment that continually outpaces its competition in other restaurant categories. Following in the footsteps of successful build-your-own burger and Mexican concepts such as Five Guys and Chipotle, the category is already chock-full of competition.
If anyone is equipped to lead Pizza Studio, it's Varma and Biskin. The 60-year-old Biskin brings the industry know-how as a senior executive with such brands as Burger King, TGI Friday's and Baja Fresh. He was president of Wolfgang Puck and was president of Native Foods, a vegan restaurant chain.
Varma brings the heart and passion – he used to make his own pizzas with his siblings as a youngster in his mother's kitchen – along with a military and business background that makes him uniquely qualified to lead Pizza Studio.
Born on Long Island and later attending high school in Maryland, it was always Varma's dream to attend the Naval Academy.
"It was one of the toughest things I have ever done," Varma said of attending the Naval Academy, whose candidates for admission must be nominated, usually by a Member of Congress. "But it taught me discipline and integrity, above all else. They are things that I value greatly today and I have implemented many of the ideals at Pizza Studio such as attention to detail and exceeding expectations."
While on active duty, Varma served for eight years on a Trident nuclear submarine and was on sea patrol during the September 11 attacks. He was later named 2002 Junior Officer of the Year for the entire Atlantic Trident Submarine fleet.
"Being on sea patrol during the events of 9/11 and experiencing what it was like to be forward deployed in the military during such an intense time is a memory that will always stay with me," Varma said.
Earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and doing post-graduate study in nuclear engineering, Varma also earned an MBA at USC. After working at a software startup, he later became a partner at one of the West Coast's most successful venture capital firms, which has sold three companies to Google and taken several others public.
"Engineering taught me a skill set that is very important in life," Varma said. "It teaches you how to learn very difficult material in a short period of time and how to do analysis and experimentation to derive the best answer. It was a great background for business because I apply the same fundamentals to business problems.
"I also got to see thousands of business plans and met the best and brightest entrepreneurs while working in venture capital," Varma continued. "I learned how to grow a business from two employees to several hundred. Today I still sit on boards of some very successful tech companies and really understand what it takes to build a company and a brand."
Varma's conviction in the potential of Pizza Studio is evidenced in one final manner, which speaks volumes. While the vast majority of franchise concepts offer no financial assistance to franchisees, Varma offers select, qualified franchisees joint-venture partnerships.
"We have a large pool of capital to draw from and develop stores and we are so convinced in the model that we would happily participate in individual store economics," Varma said. "It shows confidence in the model and confidence in the operators we are choosing. We are going with quality, not quantity in our operators and we put our money where our mouth is."
Much like the intangibles he brings to his leadership role, Varma said the same ideals would differentiate Pizza Studio from its competitors in a crowded category. "Other successful concepts out-executed the competition because of some key differences and that's what Pizza Studio will do," he said.
Varma said the Pizza Studio business model is built for speed, simplicity and consistency and is easily scalable. For example, instead of using an open-flame oven, the thin-crust pizzas are baked in a high-temperature, self-venting conveyor oven that requires no special hoods.
"We spent an entire year getting every aspect of operations completely right," Varma said. "We have a high-output system that results in a consistent product every time. Everything about the process has been tested and tried with thousands of data points... the crispness of the pizza, the foldability, the heat, even the size of the bubbling."
Guests choose from five original crusts, four signature sauces and cheeses, nitrate-free meats and fresh and roasted vegetables for each custom-built pizza. An 11-inch "Create Your Masterpiece" pizza is $7.99, including unlimited premium toppings, while featured "Starving Artists" selections are $5.99.
"Our mozzarella cheese is block-shredded in-house multiple times a day to avoid anti-caking agents and chemicals used in shredded cheese," Varma said. "We use a meat supplier that has been around for 65 years. We cut our own vegetables daily and those that are roasted are done so with olive oil and sea salt."
SOURCE Pizza Studio
The Pizza Studio
President and Co-Founder
Sanderson & Associates