Ellen DeGeneres strode onto the stage first. “Pizza’s here!” she said. Behind her followed a stunned delivery guy named Edgar, holding three boxes of the finest pie Big Mama’s & Papa’s Pizzeria has on offer. “Hello,” Edgar said to Hollywood’s assembled royalty. And then for three minutes—the most memorable of last year’s Oscars, made extraordinary by its ordinariness—the two distributed slices to the hungry likes of Meryl Streep and Harrison Ford. The pizza shop swears it had no idea this was going to happen; Edgar says he had been told he was delivering pizza to the crew, and then Ellen led him out past the curtains. Given what ABC charges for a 30-second ad during the Oscars, TMZ calculated that Big Mama’s & Papa’s 180 seconds of sunshine was worth $10.8 million.
It seemed like a crazy blip for an otherwise obscure pizzeria, good for maybe a few weeks of increased sales. But one year later, we can see the profound effect that $10.8 million in unexpected free advertising has had. Big Mama’s ambitions have been amplified, and the chain is aiming to go global.
Big Mama’s has a romantic origin story: In 1992, as teenagers not yet fluent in English, Armenian immigrant brothers Aro and Allen Agakhanyan opened a 500-square-foot pizza shop that they’d work at for hours after high school let out. They’ve since grown the company to 20 locations in and around L.A., some owned by them and others franchised. (Edgar, who delivered to the Oscars, is a franchisee.) And they’ve gained local notoriety for living up to the “Big” in their name: They serve a 54-inch, 200-slice “Giant Sicilian”: the Guinness World Records calls it the largest deliverable pizza in the world. In January, Miley Cyrus posted a photo of herself in front of one on Facebook.
One of the brothers’ locations is near DeGeneres’ studio in Burbank, and they say her staff orders from it frequently. But during the biggest delivery in the company’s history, only one brother, Aro, was watching. Allen was working late at the office when someone called, frantically telling him what was going on. He immediately called his brother. “We had been waiting for a great opportunity to come, and this was it,” Allen says. “And that’s when we decided, right away, we’ve got to get a hold of Lou and Ray.”
Lou and Ray are Lou Franson, former president of Hooters and managing director of Arby’s International, and Ray Perry, former COO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. They had teamed up as restaurant consultants and had met with the Agakhanyan brothers a few years prior to talk about expansion. Nothing came of the meeting back then, but suddenly everything was different. “The day after the Oscars, I get a call, and all I hear is, ‘We need help!’ ” Franson says. New investors and potential franchisees were calling the brothers. Customers were ordering pizza as if the stars were in the back tossing dough. The restaurant veterans signed on immediately.
Franson says they knew the brand couldn’t be built on one TV moment, no matter how many A-listers had been involved. “From a legal standpoint, we had to be very careful,” he says. They don’t actually own the rights to any of the Oscars images, and it’s not as if Brad Pitt can be called an official sponsor, as much as he did seem to enjoy his slice. There’s also a risk of overplaying the moment, like an Olympian who wears his medal when he goes grocery shopping. Even the greatest accomplishment can start to look like a crutch, something you show off for lack of any other accolade.
But Franson and Perry are plotting a way around all this. They want to use the brief blessing from the Oscars to present Big Mama’s & Papa’s in a new light: as the embodiment of L.A. coolness. DeGeneres’ Oscar gag may have worked because the pizza joint seemed like a local-yokel place—the kind that, frankly, Brad Pitt wouldn’t be frequenting. But the company’s brochure for prospective franchisees plays it differently: “Big Mama’s & Papa’s Pizzeria is a hot concept that’s served hot out of the oven, but it’s definitely ‘Southern California Cool’—as 43 million viewers saw when Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres hand delivered Big Mama’s & Papa’s pizza slices to Hollywood A-list stars.” That’s the vision new franchisees will be buying into. But to make it stick, Franson and Perry realize that they need to amp up the company’s cool factor.
Step one: Big Mama’s needs a cool car. The company has partnered with Mercedes-Benz to create a Smart car for deliveries. It’s an eye-catching, if goofy, little thing: The car is vinyl-wrapped in the company colors—red and yellow—and has a giant image of a pizza on the door. On top is a custom-made insulated box, wider than the car itself, which is built to hold that 200-slice monster. All new franchisees are required to buy a pair of the cars.
Step two: Big Mama’s needs a cool look. That’s still in development, Franson says, though he says the redesign will “capture a SoCal lifestyle.” (So, a traffic jam motif?) Most of the existing locations will be retrofitted with the new look, and all new ones will be built in its image. The chain’s tiny Hollywood location, which I popped into this week, could certainly use a lifestyle upgrade. Its mostly spare walls are painted green and orange. The only sign of its proximity to cool is a dinky Oscar trophy replica, perched on a shelf behind the register, above a sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
And, crucially, step three: The Agakhanyan brothers need to export the cool to points beyond L.A. The company is focused on signing new franchisees in California, Arizona, and Nevada, but they’ve also found a partner in Dubai. BinHendi Enterprises, a conglomerate that has launched everything from luxury hotels to fine dining across the Gulf and Middle East, has committed to opening two Big Mama’s in the region this year, with more expected to follow. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment, but it’s likely that they expect L.A. coolness to play well in internationally minded Gulf cities. It’s worked for other retailers: New York’s Magnolia Bakery, made famous on Sex and the City, is now also in Beirut, Doha, Dubai, and Kuwait City.
In pitching regional attitude, Big Mama’s is making a different play than many of its competitors. “Many successful regional chains are capitalizing on the fast casual dining trend,” says IBISWorld analyst Andrew Alvarez, who watches the pizza industry. He’s talking about the Chipotle-style, customize-everything movement that’s been killing the likes of McDonald’s. Customization can play well in the $38.7 billion pizza industry, which is expected to grow an estimated 2 percent annually for the next five years. PizzaRev, also from Los Angeles, has 19 locations and another 29 coming. Pie Five Pizza, based in Texas, has 26 franchises, with 40 more planned for this year and another 200 in the pipeline. Both are hot on customization that goes beyond the usual selection of toppings: Customers can also pick the type of dough, sauce, and cheese. PizzaRev’s slogan is “Craft Your Own.”
Big Mama’s & Papa’s has plenty of options, too. You want gluten-free pizza? Whole wheat? Pizza in the shape of a gondola, filled with the toppings of your choice along with two sunny-side eggs? They’ve got it. But now the real test of its coolness will begin: Another Oscars will have come and gone, this time, presumably, without any high-profile on-air catering, and Big Mama’s will be left to create its own momentum. The Agakhanyan brothers aren’t sweating it. They always envisioned making a push like this, seeing how far their ambitions could take them. “The brand was going to expand regardless,” Allen says. “What the Oscars did, it sped things up. It’s just a matter of timing.” And in pizza delivery, timing is everything.