How An HCL Engineer Built La Pino’z Pizza, A Rs. 1000 Crore Pizza Brand

For decades, pizza in India has been synonymous with two giant brands from the US — Dominos and Pizza Hut. These companies have spread their operations all over the country, built India’s pizza culture, and have even Indianized their menus to suit Indian tastes. But amidst this dominance, a plucky Indian firm is taking the fight right to them.

La Pino’z Pizza, founded in 2011, now has 600 outlets across the country, and is competing head-to-head with the big boys. In comparison, Dominos has 1,900 outlets in India, while Pizza Hut has around 500. La Pino’z is also aggressively looking to expand, and has another 100 outlets in the pipeline. But there was little to suggest in the company’s initial days that it would end up competing with 63-year-old Dominos and 65-year-old Pizza Hut.

La Pino’z early days

In 2011, Sanam Kapoor worked at HCL, and like many other IT workers, wasn’t entirely happy. “I wanted to leave my job, wanted to do something of my own,” he says. But Kapoor hailed from a middle class family from Chandigarh, and didn’t have much capital to start his own venture. As luck would have it, his father happened to be selling a house around that time, and would net Rs. 15 lakh from the sale. He agreed to give it to Sanam to help his start his company.

Kapoor did some research, and zeroed in on opening a pizza outlet. He had initially planned to start off the company with a friend, but the friend backed out at the last moment. Kapoor, however, decided to go through it alone. “I felt I had the capability to take things to the next level alone,” Kapoor says.

Kapoor zeroed in on a tiny 120 sq ft outlet in Sector 9 in Chandigarh. He named the pizzeria La Pino’z, and planned a grand opening. But things didn’t go quite as planned. On the very first day they’d opened, his pizza machine broke down, and couldn’t make any pizzas. “The customers were waiting…it was a massacre,” he remembers. Kapoor shut down the outlet to fix his issues, and only opened two days later. He invited his friends to the new launch. But when the outlet opened again, he discovered that the power load at the outlet was too high, and they had to shut down for another four days. But La Pino’z was third time lucky — when the outlet finally opened, crowds came in in droves, and liked the pizzas.

“The marketing of the outlet was done entirely by our customers,” Kapoor says. La Pino’z hadn’t spent any money on ads, but customers spread the word about the pizzas, and brought in new users. “The product was amazing, people loved it and kept coming back for more,” Kapoor says. La Pino’z was also selling pizzas by the slice instead of whole pizzas, which made it easier for people to order smaller quantities.

As the first outlet flourished, Sanam Kapoor decided to expand, and opened a second outlet, this time in Mohali in Phase 7. But he discovered that expansion wouldn’t be straightforward — in the new outlet, people seemed unwilling to pay Rs. 80 for a pizza slice. “A customer walked in a and told me, why would they pay Rs. 80 for a slice when they could get an entire pizza from an established brand for Rs. 49,” Kapoor says. Kapoor realized that the newer outlet was more price conscious, and immediately adapted and began selling Rs. 49 pizzas of his own. There were more customer demands — after they’d launched the Rs. 49 pizzas, customers demanded bigger pizzas too. La Pino’z quickly iterated, and launched medium and large pizzas. “You have to be on your toes. You need to adapt from what the market tells you,” Kapoor says.

La Pino’z: The Franchise Route

La Pino’z didn’t have to wonder how to expand — the opportunity literally landed on its doorstep. Within 15 days of opening its first outlet, a customer had walked in and asked Kapoor “Tussi franchise dende hon? (Do you give out franchises)”. At that point, Sanam Kapoor had no idea what a franchise was, or how it worked. But after a couple of years into the business, he had realized that if he wanted La Pino’z to expand quickly, he couldn’t open all stores on his own. In 2013, they opened their first few franchise outlets.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As the franchises opened, Kapoor used to discover on his visits that they were using sauces which hadn’t been approved by the brand. “The franchises owners told me they were using the new sauces because they were cheaper,” Kapoor remembers. He had to convince owners that they needed to maintain the quality of the pizzas to be able to make money long term. Other franchise owners, he discovered, weren’t billing all orders, and evading the royalties that were due to his company.

Even as Samar Kapoor was dealing with these teething troubles, he realized that the royalties they’d been charging franchise owners was too high. “Franchise owners didn’t want to pay a 8 percent royalty. They’d invested money into the outlets, and wanted to make it back quickly,” he says. Kapoor then negotiated with franchise owners, and settled for as low as 2 percent in the initial periods. “We lowered royalties, and ensured people used the best quality ingredients and didn’t cheat us,” he says. “We had to be like a big family,” he says.

But despite the setbacks, the franchises grew quickly. After opening its first franchise outlet in 2013, La Pino’z had opened 100 outlets by 2017. This number rose to 200 outlets in 2019, and 300 outlets by 2021. Around this time, the use of food ordering apps like Swiggy and Zomato was also taking off, and La Pino’z became a hot favourite on the online ordering market. La Pino’z’s fame also made it easier to find franchises. “Nearly all our franchise owners are our existing customers: they’ve tried the product, loved it, approached us and we gave them a a franchise,” he says.

All this meant that Sanam Kapoor was busier than ever. “There were days when I didn’t have time to go back home at night,” he says. Kapoor was regularly traveling to the cities where the outlets were opening. “I used to visit the outlets at 12:30 am, 1 am,” he says. “Then I had to be up the next morning to oversee the insertion of leaflets into newspapers at 4 am. I didn’t have to time to go back home, so I’d sleep in my car,” he says. “I was working for 18 hours a day at that point, starting from 7 am going all the way to 1 am.”

La Pino’z Pizza: Setting sights abroad

All the hard work, though, has paid off. La Pino’z currently has over 600 outlets in India. The company’s annual revenue has touched Rs. 1,000 crore. La Pino’z has also ventured abroad, right into the den of the global pizza giants, and has opened an outlet in London. The company will soon open outlets in places including Australia, UK, Canada, Dubai and even Tanzania.

At times, Kapoor himself marvels at how far he’s come. “When I started out, I had no idea about marketing, sales, finances or accounting,” he laughs. I didn’t even know how GST and VAT worked. But I focused on the product — the whole product was created by me — the items, the raw materials, and the taste,” he says.

“When I’d founded La Pino’z, I had hoped that this business would take care of my family,” he says. “Now we have 600 franchises, so around 1,200 franchise partners, and with 20 employees at each franchise, the La Pino’z family is around 10,000 strong. La Pino’z takes care of all of them now,” he beams.