Pita Pit - Overcoming the human risk factor

The Pita Pit franchise is not just about fresh, tasty food on the go. 

When Chris Henderson and Duane Dalton brought the franchise from Canada to New Zealand back in 2006, they wanted to provide healthier takeaway options for their kids than what they’d experienced as ‘fast food’ while they were growing up.

Establishing and growing Pita Pit during the global financial crisis

Building healthier families was part of what drove the pair to open their first store in Takapuna in 2007, right at the height of the housing bubble and at the start of the global financial crisis.  

It proved to be tough times, and growing an unproven challenger brand took time.

“We knew we had something unique and fresh that people would love, but in the early days, we hadn’t yet earned the right to grow quickly. For two years, we rolled up our sleeves and hunkered down in the Takapuna store, often both working until 3am to capture the ‘bar-closing’ market and really just finding the grounding we would need to catapult the business into growth,” says Duane Dalton.

In the early days, we hadn’t yet earned the right to grow quickly.

Today Pita Pit boasts a national footprint in New Zealand, with 110 stores, and another 13 in Australia where Dalton says there is plenty of room to grow. 

We put the hours in at the start and now we have a much better work-life balance.

“We put in the hours at the start and now we have a much better work-life balance,” he says. “I think you have to earn the right to leave: to step away from the business from time to time, and I think we’ve done that.”

Training and the human risk factor

Besides the healthy, fresh ingredients and emphasis on ‘full disclosure food’ (moving to 100 per cent free-range chicken and eggs and ethically-farmed bacon and ham for all outlets across New Zealand), Dalton says there is a real focus on making sure that the 1200 people in the business are enabled and empowered to deliver on the philosophy of open, fresh and authentic product – and service.

“Employing the right ‘Pit Crew’ has a huge bearing on the business and there is a fine line between making sure we pay a working percentage and also retain our staff. The quick service restaurant industry is very fluid and the people who come to work for us need to be trained in our standardised routines and procedures so they can deliver on our promise.

“Consumers are much more aware these days of how their food should look and what they can expect from us, so we try to stay at the forefront of training and delivery to meet and exceed customer expectations every time.

“For example, we are currently looking to hire a full-time training manager to help us develop gamification strategies for staff training using smartphones, for health and safety, process and procedures, access to manuals – the works.”

“At a franchisor level, it’s the human risk factor that keeps us awake at night. We literally lie there wondering how we develop standards for best practice and then roll them out uniformly across our 123 franchises so that every employee is on point. It’s an ongoing exercise in risk management,” he says.

It’s the human risk factor that keeps us awake at night

Dalton says that Pita Pit has a philosophy of “hire for fit: train for skill” which means that finding a person with the right chemistry is an ongoing challenge.  “We encourage franchisees to introduce various operational mechanics into the workplace so that employees can benefit from incentives, staff discounts, reward and recognition programmes and in-store events.  We want people to come to work and have fun: really enjoy what they are doing so they want to stay.

The logistics puzzle and its impact on profit

Dalton also says that the human factor or ‘people puzzle’ is complicated by logistics in the larger centres, where traffic congestion, inadequate public transport and even housing issues create challenges for the business. “People get grid-locked coming in from the suburbs, or trains are late, or there’s a motorway accident and suddenly we are a team member down, or suppliers turn up with late deliveries and the whole day’s profit takes a hit.  Big city issues are very real and frustrating for a number of our franchisees,” he says.

Dalton says that the confidence he and Chris have in the brand has helped drive the underlying philosophy of getting people to make better food choices.  “The full-disclosure programme is all about helping people to understand what they are putting in their mouths, and it really did start with us, selfishly, wanting our kids to eat better. I guess there was a bit of a socialist mentality in setting up the business that seems to have resonated with a lot of people out there.” 

Suncorp New Zealand would like to thank Pita Pit for sharing their story.

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