Jeff Leach, Co-founder of N_K_DPizza, bares all
Rushika Bhatia
Business Pinup

Jeff Leach, Co-founder of N_K_DPizza, bares all

Jeff Leach, Co-founder of N_K_DPizza, bares all

Jeff Leach strips his business down to its basics and tells us what makes his brand one of the fastest growing food franchises in the US. As the keynote speaker for the SME Advisor Summit, he had an extended chat with Ketaki Banga when he was in town to prepare for the launch of the store in Dubai Marina.

Owning a brand like N_K_DPizza (pronounced naked, but spelt in keeping with regional sensibilities) opens one up to many puns. Jeff Leach has probably heard them all but that doesn’t stop him from streaking across the room to the summit attendees, flashing his card and leaving them to gape or grin at the bold text on his card that cheerfully announces “Hello, I’m naked.”

Flip the card over and you start to understand, and maybe stop choking over your croissant. Across a background of hard-to-miss orange is the text: “Strip down to what’s natural, meaningful and true. It’s how we live. It’s how we want everyone to live.” Ah, you get it now. Clever!

Like Jeff himself admits, you throw in two very powerful words like naked and pizza into a brand name and you’ve automatically got the attention of most people in the United States. That’s where it all started.

His journey began in New Orleans in 2006; following hurricane Katrina, the city became a hub for entrepreneurs. So what triggered it? “When my daughter was diagnosed with diabetes at 18 months old, I began to do a lot more research into food and what we eat,” he explains. “I studied ancient dietary habits, ancient cooking technology, and how the change in cooking technology changed the chemical balance on foods and the subsequent impact they have on our bodies.”

Why pizza, though?
“I got into the pizza business for the same reason a robber robs a bank – because that’s where the money is and pizza is where the people are,” he admits. “We didn’t re-invent anything; we just hacked into an existing business model. The biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is trying to re-invent the wheel. We basically have 98% of the same DNA as Domino’s, but there is that 2% difference and that is important.”  

It took three years to develop the pizza and it’s naked because there is nothing unnatural in it. “There are no freaky chemicals in any of our ingredients. We have 12 different grains, no trans-fats, and fewer calories than most other pizzas.” Having said that, it’s still pizza, he cautions and you shouldn’t have it every day.  

That’s a healthy dose of the naked truth!

This was the one thing that struck me about Jeff – he tells it like it is. The second thing was – he just couldn’t stop talking! In all fairness to him, he makes for great copy, though not all of it is printable. He’s a journalist’s delight for the never-ending stream of quotable quotes, though I can imagine it would be difficult to have a conversation with him and not be sold pizza. He sells his pizza all the time – he even tried it with our photographer and art director during the shoot.   

Well, it obviously works because it’s been an eventful ride and N_K_DPizza has garnered an impressive slice of the action in a very short span of time. In Jeff’s own words: “So I set up a tiny store – it’s ten feet wide at the front, nine and a half feet wide at the back – the building leans and the roof still leaks till this day, and from that tiny little building we became the most blogged about restaurant in the world over a year and a half ago and still are today as far as I know.”

As he’d predicted when it was named, N_K_DPizza soon got the attention of some very interesting people. “I got an e-mail at 5:30 am from my business partner, Randy, telling me that Mark Cuban, the Internet billionaire, was looking for proposals and that we should send him an e-mail. So I sat there in my dressing gown, drinking coffee and hammered out a 1,000 word mail. Fifteen minutes later I got a mail back from Mark, five days later we had a deal and four months later we closed the deal. Mark flew to New Orleans, got out of the van and walked up to this crummy building and said ‘I get it…I get it! I see what you’re doing, so let’s try and scale it.’”

And scale it they did.

It pays to be social
One very powerful element of N_K_DPizza’s communication mix is social media. It was Mark Cuban who suggested that they look into Twitter and Facebook and it really helped catapult the brand to consumers and investors. “Another investor who independently found out about us through Twitter was Robert Craft, of the Craft family, the famous owners of the New England football team,” says Jeff as he talks about how they were the most tweeted concept in the world for about two hours back in April 2009. “What we discovered was how social our brand was,” he reveals.

They took that revelation and ran with it and there’s been no looking back.

The success of the business and the role social media has played has made N_K_DPizza the current poster kid of Twitter proponents. Jeff is only too happy to jump from pizza to tweeting with equal enthusiasm. He encourages the adoption of social media but adds a word of caution – this is only for brands that have something to say.

Well, one factor is not having anything to say, but the other is not knowing what to say.

Personality that packs a punch
That’s where the brand’s personality kicks in, according to Jeff. He feels that real people and issues, or the human element is what gets people’s attention and, later, loyalty. “Because we are not a big brand, we just basically let it all hang out there. Now, don’t be a jerk obviously, but be yourself.”

Being yourself can be controversial, but it’s a refreshing change from politically correct and boringly polite brands. That explains why some of the most obnoxious characters on reality TV get the most air time – not to say that Jeff’s obnoxious, but he’s definitely stepped on some toes and it’s interesting to watch the action from the sidelines.   

One of the issues N_K_DPizza has come out against is organic food. “We upset a lot of people and cause a lot of friction. You can learn more about why we are anti-organic food online. We don’t have 87 million diabetics in the US because we don’t eat organic tomatoes – it has absolutely nothing to do with it! People embraced this organic trend and went into the store and bought supposed organic products without even asking questions. We always need to keep asking questions!” Jeff urges.

But it all helps grab more eyeballs. “We punch above our weight on a daily basis because we are an interesting brand and people like to talk about interesting things,” he admits.

He mentions this outrageous tweet he once let loose upon the world, which was retweeted 4,700 times and seen by over 17 million people. He got indignant e-mails from agency people saying he couldn’t do that to his brand. “And I’m like, yeah! And then we picked up 600 followers,” he chuckles. “People generally like the fact that there are people behind the brand – that they are real people who are flawed like the rest of us, who have some messed up relationships like we all do, and our bosses are jerks, and we can’t pay our bills.”

He compares this to purchasing handmade goods, where you can actually see the flaws because they were made by a person and not a machine; but that adds to the charm.

The truth is out there
Jeff also explains how social media is not necessarily a medium as it is a tool of transparency. The whole mindset with large corporate houses is that they want to control their messages. “But that’s changed in the last 24 months and I think Twitter had a lot to do with it,” he feels. “I think consumers are calling time on brands that obviously filter their message.”

Being in the food business he cites a typical example from that industry, from back in the days when restaurants would talk about their secret recipe as if it were locked away in a vault somewhere: “And that used to be a marketing ploy – ooh, it’s the secret sauce! But today’s consumers wonder what the big secret is – ‘what are you hiding from me that may be hurting me?’”

Consumers know when you’re not being upfront, he believes.

Levelling the playing field
Jeff also enthuses about the business-to-business aspect of social media: “It’s almost like voyeurism. Potential partners are able to watch me and see my elevator pitch on a daily basis. They can learn about our ethos, our products, attitude, and get everything they’ll never get from a report they are not going to read. I think this is going to change the B2B landscape. It is going to create speed and fluidity in deal making, and create more lasting bonds between entrepreneurs and investors.”

He elaborates on the changes: “We went from a concept to a brand in a lightning flash. People say you can’t launch a brand in the middle of a recession – we did! They told us you can’t raise tens of millions of dollars, but that’s what we did. You can’t have 300-500 stores under development in this economic climate, but that’s exactly what we did. I was told we can’t go international – we went international when we still had that one little store. I was told we had to wait ten years. Well, we haven’t got time and things have changed.”

He feels social media and the Internet have caused some of these changes and levelled the playing field. “And you can either pay attention to it or you can ignore it,” he shrugs.