After fleeing Cuba in the 1960s, Herminio Llevat and his family came to the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Llevat downplays his hardships, calling them “typical immigrant struggles,” but his rise since has been impressive. After earning two degrees at Harvard and building a franchising company that operated 60 Arby’s, as well as Taco Bell and Baja Fresh units, he has turned the tables and become a franchisor himself. His fast-casual concept, Flippin’ Pizza, which serves New York-style pies by the slice, squeaked onto the Franchise 500® this year for the first time, at No. 495.
“I felt like I had a lot of experience with three different national brands,” Llevat says. “I wanted to take what I had learned, both the good and the bad, and apply it. I knew how to develop stores from scratch and operate domestically in various markets. And I felt I had all the necessary skills on my team to develop a franchise.”
In 2008 Llevat was introduced to Patrick Farley, founder of Flippin’ Pizza, a three-unit pizza concept in Southern California. He was impressed by the operation and even more impressed by the pizza. He eventually bought a controlling interest and began systematizing and expanding the concept, which now has 20 units in the U.S. (in SoCal, Miami and the Washington, D.C., area), plus two in Dubai and one in Mexico City. In the next year, Llevat plans to open corporate units near universities to test the viability of those locations.
Although there are dozens of fast-casual pizza concepts entering the market, Llevat is confident that Flippin’ Pizza has what it takes to succeed. First, he points out, no single concept has a dominant market share, so the field is still wide open. Second, his pizza is different from the others: Instead of small, Neapolitan-style pies, Flippin’ employees make and stretch dough every day to produce the larger, floppier New York-style pizza that’s served by the slice after being heated in a brick oven. The third differentiator, he says, is that besides family-friendly dine-in options, Flippin’ offers delivery; most other fast-casual concepts do not.
While he believes Flippin’ can compete on its pizza alone, Llevat is convinced that the way to create a sustainable system is to get people to think of the brand as their neighborhood pizzeria.
“We want to have a deep cultural connection with the communities we serve,” he says, pointing to Flippin’ food trucks, which serve pizza at high-school football games, community events and corporate offices. “For instance, when we partner with groups for fundraising, we offer them 50 percent. Most other places do 20 percent. We want to connect deeply with nonprofits, schools and sports teams.”
Flippin’ Pizza also offers a sweat equity program at corporate stores, where general managers can work their way into their own franchise. “It’s a way to give people a stake in the businesses they run,” Llevat says. “I’m living the American dream, and I want to give other people the same opportunity.”