What do you do when you have an idea that is so good, so obvious, that you can’t help but run with it? About five years ago, Roger Dwyer, a Portsmouth resident and former wine and service educator at Johnson & Wales University, had just such an idea.
As he tells the story, he was at Chardonnay’s restaurant in Seekonk, putting together a wine list for the restaurant’s owner, Al Castiglione.
“Have you had their pizza?” Mr. Dwyer asks. “They’ve got great pizza. And I was in the kitchen watching the staff pressing and grilling dough, and then stacking them for later. I asked Al, ‘You make these in advance?’ He told me, yeah, that all they did was pop them in oven, and they came out really good. And I wasn’t going to argue with that, because they were really good. I thought, you could make a fortune with these.”
In 2009, Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Castiglione joined forces and named their company, “Top This,” with Mr. Dwyer handling sales and Mr. Castiglione producing the crusts in his restaurant. That year, they were producing about 40 cases of crusts a week, and they had 16 customers. That has since changed.
In 2012, they produced more than 1,000 cases a week, selling through 200 retail outlets and six food service distributors. Mr. Dwyer retired from Johnson and Wales to run Top This full-time. Their success was due in large part to their transition into the retail markets — a move that was all Mr. Dwyer.
“I knew it would make a great retail product,” he said. “I would travel to restaurants with samples and 1 in 7 would order on the spot. Meanwhile, I was getting familiar and comfortable with the business end of the business. I wanted to get into retail, but he didn’t. In frustration, I asked him to sell me the business, and so now I have a 90 percent share.” (Mr. Castiglione retained 10 percent.)
It turns out, Mr. Dwyer’s idea was, in fact, fully baked. “Sure, I had my doubts. I thought, I’m a teacher, what am I doing? But I believed in it and thought it would work. The first thing I did was develop a retail package and plan.”
Mr. Dwyer was right — as a retail product, Top This has taken off and now makes about 60 percent of its sales in retail, and 40 percent in food service.
Something besides the ownership structure changed with the transition to retail. The product changed, too.
Knowing it would need to meet certain standards to get placed in outlets such as Whole Foods, Mr. Dwyer knew certain ingredients— like bleached and bromated flour — would have to go.
“I wanted a healthier product, so I took it to some of my colleagues at Johnson & Wales. They worked it and we tried sample after sample. The charge I gave them was to create a product that tasted as good, but was completely clean. When I found a sample that I thought was good, I took it to Al for a second opinion. He thought it was better.”
“Chardonnay uses our recipe now,” says Mr. Dwyer.
Top This currently enjoys good local coverage, but Mr. Dwyer has his eyes on bigger things. “We can grow, a lot. I don’t feel we have to be a national product, but we would like to be more of a force regionally.
“We are in New York and New Jersey, but only at Whole Foods. Eventually will be in many more retail outlets. The more retail we’re in, the more exposure. You never know who is going to come across it,” Mr. Dwyer says with a smile. “Maybe the CEO of General Mills.”