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Malawi’s Pizza finds early adopters for purposeful plan


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Chef/CEO Kent Andersen, left, with Chewa Tribal King Kalonga Gawa Undi from Malawi, and Blake Roney.

Americans sending food abroad has historical roots. During WWI, U.S. citizens curtailed their consumption of wheat and sugar, eating instead fresh produce, in order to send shippable food to Europe for both the allies and our own soldiers. The slogan was “Food will win the war.” There was a similar campaign during the second World War.

But a franchise supplying food to one of the least developed countries in the world based on pizza sales is a new twist to the social-sector franchise scene.

Just like Warby Parker eyeglasses and Toms Shoes are tapping into Americans’ philanthropic shopping proclivity, Malawi’s Pizza hopes that same goodness can find a niche in the ubiquitous $38 billion pizza world. The fledgling chain may have an opening because the profile of pizza eaters is changing, according to PMO Pizza Magazine, to include more women, people who exercise at least twice a week and minorities.

Malawi’s Pizza’s tagline says it all: “Pizza with a purpose.” For every meal purchased at the Utah-based company, a nutrient-dense meal is donated to a child in the southeastern African country. They’re not delivering pizzas, but rather food more indigenous to the area. The founders of the pizza chain are Kent Andersen, a celebrity chef in the Utah market, and Blake Roney, the deep-pocketed founder of Nu Skin and trustee of the Force for Good Foundation. “His faith led him to do mission work in Malawi,” says Benjamin Litalien, founder of FranchiseWell, a consultancy, and the person who put together the franchise program.  During his initial trip there, Roney discovered that if the villagers had a good growing season, people ate; if the rains didn’t come or the environmental conditions were harsh, everyone went hungry, Litalien says.

To date, about 767,079 meals have been donated from just three restaurants, according to the company. And in case you’re wondering, “the meal program is on the franchisor’s dollar, not the franchisees,” Litalien says. A not-for-profit arm of the company handles that detail. Instead of going the way of grant funding, “he wanted to create a business that could sustain itself,” Litalien says about Roney.

Malawi is the landlocked country in southeastern Africa, bordered by the better-known Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the northeast and dipping into Mozambique. It’s the smallest country in Africa, a third of which is taken up by a single lake. If you think you’ve heard of it, but can’t quite remember how, it’s the country from which popstar Madonna adopted her children, Litalien points out.

Malawi

Malawi is landlocked, surrounded by Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and dipping into Mozambique.

Currently, there are three Malawi’s Pizza restaurants open in Utah and four under construction. They have signed multi-unit development agreements in Dallas with a former McDonald’s franchisee for 18 units, and a 20-store deal in Houston. A five-unit commitment in Virginia is with Litalien’s daughter and son-in-law, Rebecca and Patrick Church. “My wife is a picky eater,” Litalien says, “and when she (Rebecca) heard her mom liked it, she said, ‘that must be good pizza.” His wife, not he, is the investor with the young couple, he adds.

“Millennials seek meaning in what they do,” Litalien says to explain the attraction to cause marketing. They want transparency in the businesses where they spend their hard-earned cash and to feel good about their purchases. And, as evidenced by the Churches, millennials also want to feel good about where they earn their paycheck.

“I think franchises are woefully behind in social consciousness,” he says.

But as we all know, franchisees may care about causes, but they also care about bottom lines. Because this is a fairly new franchise—it was founded in 2010—Litalien says it is still early for the “rank-and-file” to comfortably invest, so they are seeking “early adopters.”

The décor is African and includes a life-size tree, so no doubt about the mission of the restaurant. But the food doesn’t take a second seat. Andersen is a classically trained chef, interested in turning out gourmet-style pizzas, along with pasta and salads in a fast-casual model.

As the chain grows, so do the number of meals donated. Malawi’s reach may not have the same firepower as WWI’s  sentiment that food wins wars, but it can certainly make a dent in the war on hunger.

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