December 7, 2022

Pizza To The People: Tony’s Slice House To Open 20+ Franchises Across U.S.

by Joe Bonadio

If there’s anything I’ve learned from working with Tony Gemignani, it’s that everything around him is always changing. There is always something new happening in Tony’s orbit of restaurants, and this week is anything but an exception: after two full years of preparation, Tony’s Slice House by Tony Gemignani restaurants will begin opening what will soon be 20+ brand new franchised locations across California and beyond.

Though the chef has been operating multiple pizzerias both here and in Nevada for years, franchising at this level is relatively new territory. But as I came to realize, Tony’s unique path has armed him for the challenge. We recently had a chance to speak about this new chapter in the company’s growth, and our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: I understand you recently began offering Slice House franchises across the country. What has that experience been like? 

Tony Gemignani: Yes, we started licensing Slice Houses to locations beyond arenas and casinos. I had licensed a few brick and mortar spots: Haight Ashbury, Belmont, and San Leandro. And prior to the pandemic, I  thought I was going to start opening more Pizza Rocks. But when the pandemic hit, Slice House became almost Covid-proof. They just did extremely well: small footprints, to go/delivery, a little dine-in. They just  accelerated.

So in the middle of the pandemic, my partners George, Trevor and I got together with Bill and decided that rather than focus on Pizza Rock, let’s take a closer look at Slice House.

So we got our attorneys and consultants together, and we started the process of becoming a franchise. It took two years to get it done properly, and that said, at this point we’ve sold almost twenty franchises. It looks like the first group is going to be in L.A., five locations, with the first of them breaking ground in Thousand Oaks.

Slice House by Tony Gemingani, now under construction in Thousand Oaks, CA

One of the first new franchise locations of Slice House by Tony Gemingani, now under construction in Thousand Oaks. | Photo: Tony Gemignani

The Belmont/Haight Ashbury group committed to four, and they’ll be looking at the Upper Peninsula: Burlingame, Palo Alto. They’re searching really hard right now, and I feel like they’ll be signing a lease very soon.

Then you have other groups, one of which just bought the rights to Fremont, Dublin and San Jose. Another is looking at the rights to Concord and some other areas. The San Leandro group is opening up Livermore. Also, there’s a group in Denver that is looking at three locations.

So if you look at Walnut Creek, Haight Ashbury, North Beach and Slice House in its entirety, we have about twenty that will be here in the next few years, give or take.

JB: So you mentioned offering these nationwide. Is there anything happening outside the state at this point? 

TG: Not yet. We’ve talked to India and Brazil. It’s interesting going into another country, it’s just a different animal entirely.

But we are trying to grow on the West Coast. We’ve had some people reach out to us from other states out here. We like Las Vegas and Nevada, of course. We like So Cal, Northern California, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington. We like Idaho, and we’ve talked to some people in Texas. There’s a lot of deals on the table, but we have twenty secured pretty much.

We’ve talked to a lot of people who are looking at three to five locations, and want to secure a region. We want people with some restaurant experience, and they have to be accredited.

It’s definitely a machine at this point, and there are layers to the company now. There’s the marketing side of it, and the infrastructure of the selling, and the seller. When someone gets vetted, it doesn’t go through me. It goes through a group, and then it goes to another level, and finally gets to  us. Then there’s a meet-and-greet. Before it was just me, and now there’s layers to it.

Slice House opening week at the San Leandro location

Tony shows off his Detroit style during opening week at the San Leandro location of Slice House by Tony Gemignani. | Photo Courtesy of Slice House

JB: So when will the first franchised location open?

TG: The first location to open will probably be Thousand Oaks, which is building now. But if someone buys a second-generation store in San Jose and signs a lease, and it’s a three-month buildout, they might open first.

JB: So you’ll be going from one franchised location to twenty in pretty  short order. That’s a pretty nice ramp-up. 

TG: It’s pretty crazy. We’ve never had that much expansion in such a short period of time. It’s a little overwhelming. We’re trying to build the infrastructure with Chef Anthony, Bill of course, George Karpaty, Trevor Hewitt.

We launched five Slice Houses at Raiders Allegiant Stadium this season, so it’s exciting. We had three Pizza Rock kiosks in Allegiant, over the summer. For the season starting, we added four Slice House locations, so we have a total of eight there now.

The Raiders came to us and said we want your pizza, but we want another concept—we don’t want to have eight Pizza Rocks. I hope to segue that to the Oakland A’s when they get to Vegas, because like them, we’re Bay Area born.

JB: That’s great. In what other areas of the country have you been seeing interest?

TG: We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries in places like Roseville and Folsom. Also parts of Texas, Arizona and Nevada. So it’s looking pretty good. We love L.A. and obviously Northern California—the Bay Area is our backyard. And we’re getting a ton of interest from both, so that’s exciting. People have been wanting me to come to L.A. for a long time.

You can’t really look at the Slice House here next to Tony’s, and say that’s what these new locations are going to be. Comparing what we have here to what we have evolved into at, say, Walnut Creek, it’s totally different.

It’s five styles of pizza: Sicilian, Grandma, Detroit, New York 20-inch, Gluten-free, and then a 12-inch. You can choose between about twenty combinations on any of those five styles. Bigger spots, outdoor seating  and dine-in. With a menu board, it’s really a state of the art place. So it’s totally different from Slice House North Beach.

So the Thousand Oaks store coming up will be kind of the prototype for what they’re going to look like. Currently we have San Leandro, we have Belmont, Haight Ashbury and Walnut Creek. But over time they have really  transformed, and they’re looking a lot better, and are better functionally than when we began.

VIP Night at the Tony's bar

VIP Night at the Tony’s bar: Chef Laura Meyer, current GM Natale Cardamone, and former manager Michele Di Ruocco. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: I have to imagine the swell of press you’ve seen over the past couple of months, including Pizzeria of the Year from Pizza Today, and the 50 Top Pizza award—that can’t be hurting your efforts.

TG: No, it’s helped a lot! We were kind of rekindled in the press, and we received some great awards. So that has been really helpful.

JB: So every new venture is different. Is there anything unique that you’ve learned from this side of the business?

TG: Well, it’s actually very similar to what I’ve been doing for a long time. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. So teaching a student how to make  pizzas, how to work an oven, and how to make dough from scratch, and testing them on their skills—I’ve been doing it for fifteen years straight. Not just in my own restaurants, but working hand-by-hand with students at the Pizza School.

So that’s the education side of it: bringing a franchisee in, training them on a 14- to 21-day program, which will be out of Walnut Creek. So it’s an extension of what I was doing with existing operators, newbies, with stock brokers who quit to go into the pizza business. It’s a different kind of training, but it’s all education.

I stopped doing the school for one reason: to focus on the franchise. I didn’t think it was fair to open a franchise near where a student is operating. So once I saw the forecast for the franchise, I pulled back from it. So now I can just put my educational focus on the franchise.

We have a lot of restaurants that we’ve opened; we’ve licensed concepts into casinos, into arenas, stadiums. Trained all the crews and staffs at those places. So it’s not really that new to me. We’ve already tested the water for a long time, and we’ve got the track record of Belmont, Haight Ashbury, San Leandro, Walnut Creek.

So am I scared it’s going to happen? No. I’m more excited now.

JB: Thank you Tony, and congratulations.