As a career marketer, Chris Tussing has a history of working with legacy chains looking to re-establish relevance and up-and-coming brands hoping to plant a flag in the market. He now serves as CEO of Buddy’s Pizza, which he views as a combination of both styles.
The chain is 77 years old and credited as the founder of Detroit-style pizza, a food innovation that’s received more of a national spotlight thanks to brands like Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Jet’s Pizza. Buddy’s has great equity in its home state of Michigan with 24 locations, but the reach essentially stops there. That’s where Tussing sees an opportunity to emerge.
“There are people who know it, there’s an allure of it, there’s a power to it, but there are more people to introduce it to than actually know and experience it today,” says Tussing, who previously spent two-and-a-half years as Marco’s Pizza CMO.
Marketers rising to the rank of CEO has become common in recent years. Some good examples: Papa Johns CEO Rob Lynch, Arby’s president Rita Patel, Primanti Bros. CEO Adam Golomb, and True Food Kitchen CEO John Williams. Tussing notes that many times, chief executive roles are filled by someone with an operations background since it’s such a fundamental part of business. But on the other side—something he believes chains are starting to understand—is that there’s power in harnessing data and knowing how to communicate with consumers. It’s about basing decisions on what the guest wants and needs as opposed to executing in response to what the C-suite feels is best.
Tussing adds that marketers often collaborate across the organization, like working with the technology team to dissect transactions, insights, and the consumer database. And in terms of gathering information from customers, they work with operations on new product launches. Coming in as Buddy’s CEO, Tussing had an appreciation for these relationships and what it takes for departments to come together for successful programs. He’s also not blind to the limitations of his expertise. That’s why one of his first moves as chief executive was hiring COO Joe Dominiak, who spent time with Taco Bell, Skyline Chili, and Wings and Rings.
“I can come up with the vision and the understanding of what this brand is about, but [operations team members] deliver it in and out every day,” Tussing says. “And Joe Dominiak, who I recently brought in, I think he complements me really well. We align in many ways, but he diversifies me and my expertise in many ways. I think it’s great to have partnerships like that, and my CFO [Farhan Jalil] diversifies me and my skill set as well.”
The executive knows he has a lot to work with, starting with Buddy’s deeper connection with customers and employees. When he first came on board, he found the emotional power behind the brand to be inspiring. The chain receives notes from customers every week, and the restaurant sends merchandise thousands of miles away to guests who moved but haven’t let their love of Buddy’s fade. From an internal perspective, Tussing says it’s not uncommon to see workers with tenures of 20 or 30 years, which he finds “pretty amazing” considering the turnover of the restaurant business, especially during COVID times.
“It was exciting to think about coming in and leading that next stage of growth for the brand because again, while we’re 77 years old, in many ways we’re just getting started,” Tussing says.
One of Tussing’s biggest initial tasks was codifying everything that made Buddy’s special. The chain didn’t have many of its cultural values and beliefs written down. He could see the pride for the brand, but the team couldn’t articulate where it came from. Defining these guardrails will help ensure the brand recruits people for the right reasons and attributes, Tussing says—people who will be put in place to help Buddy’s expand.
In addition to its brick-and-mortar presence, the pizza chain sells frozen goods in grocery stores and delivers products via Goldbelly, with most sales coming from outside Michigan. It sees demand from surrounding states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, and even farther away in California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona.
“I think that’s where we know we need to think about that growth strategy for us and what’s going to make sense as we go beyond Michigan,” Tussing says. “But I think we’ve got some real opportunity because of our paths, because of our roots, and what that’s done to our brand interest in other territories.”
Since 2018, Buddy’s has been owned by private equity firm CapitalSpring, which has helped the chain double in size. Tussing says the firm is invested in “a number of really big brands” and that they work with several seasoned operators. Through these contacts, CapitalSpring has received requests to franchise Buddy’s. Although it wouldn’t be in the immediate future, Tussing views it as a viable growth strategy. A majority of the footprint is full service, with seven being off-premises-only units.
If Buddy’s were to ever go the franchising route, Tussing is confident in the chain’s attractiveness to multi-unit operators because “our product that we serve, we think is superior and premium in the category.” The dough is made fresh daily for regular, multi-grain, gluten-free, and thin crusts. A second batch is for the chain’s signature Buddy Bread. In addition, salad dressings are made in-house and the brand sells a bottled version of its house vinaigrette.
While Buddy’s is known for pizza, Tussing says the chicken is special too.
“When you think about pizza concepts, you’re typically running chicken through pizza ovens and stuff and we’re taking fresh chicken breast, tender meat and we’re dipping in buttermilk and dredging it and seasoned flour to fry it fresh in the store. And you think about what’s going on in the chicken space these days, there’s a lot of action going on there,” Tussing says. “There’s a lot of growth in that part of the business, and we think we have a right to win for those occasions as well.”
With decades of equity, Buddy’s faces the classic dilemma of appealing to new guests while not alienating its core customers. Tussing has seen brands fall into the trap of disconnecting from the past. To him, moving forward doesn’t have to mean the company has to become a new idea; it’s more about what is complementary to growing the business and expanding the consumer footprint.
Tussing says every chain has to discover the “big sweet spot” in the middle that connects a brand’s past with its future.
In one example, Buddy’s recently released a Taste of Summer BBQ menu in which it partnered with Slows Bar BQ, a Detroit-based barbecue restaurant. They released the BBQ Brisket Pizza, featuring Wisconsin brick cheese, Slows’ smoked beef brisket, onions, Mary Ann BBQ Sauce, and freshly-chopped pickles. Another release was the Yardbird Pizza, made with smoked Amish pulled chicken, sautéed mushrooms, cheddar cheese, Slows’ whole grain honey mustard BBQ sauce, bacon, and Slows Apple Barbecue Sauce. Additionally, the company struck a deal to become a partner of University of Michigan athletics where its pizza will be available at concession stands throughout the Big House (football), Crisler Center (basketball), and Yost Ice Arena (hockey).
“I think too many times CEOs or even CMOs, you want to put your identity on the brand,” Tussing says. “But that to me is coming through as ego. If I want to make this brand, what’s Chris’ view of this brand, I’m making a mistake already. I’ve got to understand and respect Buddy’s and what makes it special to more people. That’s how we’re going to grow. That’s my approach—to come in and to make sure that we’re connecting with people that have been our legacy and our background and that are so passionate about us.”