Stoner’s Pizza aims for ‘high’ quality, eyes new markets
Some sober pizza rolls from Stoner’s, dubbed “ShowBoat,” won’t get you high quite yet.
Stoner’s Pizza Joint, a small regional chain based in Charleston, South Carolina, is getting a second life with some big goals.
The brand was founded in 2013 and did OK, growing to nine locations in the area and developing a small following. But Nick Bergelt and Drew Ciccarelli of HHI Hospitality, which bought Stoner’s in 2018, saw an opportunity to build a grander future.
“For us, Stoner’s was a very small footprint that had a lot of versatility. And from an investment standpoint it’s a great opportunity, you can do a lot,” said Bergelt.
The first thing the new owners looked at was technology to tap into “the future of pizza, from a convenience standpoint,” said Bergelt. That meant looking at every piece of technology, from the app, to the point of sale and the crucial delivery infrastructure. Bergelt said the technologies that empower the major national pizza brands have finally become affordable for small concepts, allowing consumers to tap into their pizza with the polished, convenient technology they’ve been trained to expect by the big brands.
And given Stoner’s focus on campus-adjacent locations, the technology young people want becomes even more important.
“When you’re going up against the 800-pound gorillas in the room, they’ve got hundreds of millions to funnel into this. So we just hit a tipping point where those technologies are accessible to small regional brands like us,” said Bergelt.
The other opportunity was the name. Stoner’s Pizza Joint is pretty on the nose about its pot culture heritage. And as the cannabis industry moves further into recreational use and consumers clamor for CBD everything, the brand name alone has some value.
“We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift in marijuana culture worldwide, CBD products and how that takes shape in our food we eat. So we thought we could shape Stoner’s to be a millennial-forward” brand, too, said Bergelt.
One of the many fun, pot-culture flairs is the company tagline: “Legalize Marinara.”
To that end, the new owners brought on a pizza master with experience on the culinary side of CBD and marijuana.
Glenn Cybulski joined the company in March as president and chief culinary officer. He said his first goal is updating the core menu for efficiency and profitability as the brand gets its franchise machine going. Then he’ll work on enhancing it over time with on-brand additions. He said his years of experience as a pizza expert and workshop leader for many pizza brands sets the stage for his first goal.
“I’m not going to come in and force my culinary opinions on what we’re creating right now. Absolutely there is room for improvement, but my core philosophy with Stoner’s is we’re going to improve our product without changing it drastically,” said Cybulski. “So I’m going to make some simple changes to reduce food costs, reduce labor costs, but not change the brand product to the point where people say this is clearly different. We can’t do that.”
The marijuana and CBD efforts will take some careful planning and a thoughtful approach. “When we see companies like Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch investing millions into companies working with cannabis, our first and foremost plan of action is to move very slowly into the field of cannabis,” said Cybulski.
He said the brand will start with cannabinoids, the legal substance at the heart of the CBD craze, using CBD-infused sauces and toppings instead of the common practice among food retailers to simply drop in some CBD. He said “elevated” CBD products will come online within a year, but psychoactive pizzas are further off. “THC is going to be a few years out, and we also have to deal with the process of acceptance in different regions, so we’re very, very careful,” said Cybulski.
He noted the halo of sustainable food and chemical-free ingredients blends into the modern view of cannabis. It’s not just the “Cheech and Chong” version of packing as much of whatever substance you can find in a bong.
“We’re way beyond that. Tracking and tracing all of our products, we are working with another company that is literally growing hemp so we will have track and traceability from our fields to our distribution,” said Cybulski. “Just like in Stoner’s now, we use high-quality products, we make our own dough and we really focus on fresh vegetables and high-quality protein and to be able to do that with cannabinoids and THC, that’s the same thought process, we have to use the highest level product.”
Stoner’s has 11 stores open, with a handful in development with multi-unit operators.