Marco's Pizza with pepperoni and cheese

Marco’s Pizza is the dark horse of the pizzeria world, with fewer stores than giant chains like Pizza Hut, according to 24/7 Wall St. Despite that, it’s earned a place in the heart of pizza lovers. According to a Market Force study based on the responses from 11,000 consumers, Marco’s Pizza was the "Favorite Pizza Chain" in 2017, earning top points for food quality, atmosphere, and cleanliness. This Ohio-based pizza chain is expanding fast, making its presence felt not just in the United States, but also internationally in countries like the Bahamas.

With an Italian founder at the helm, their pizzas aim at being authentic and made with fresh ingredients. Pasquale "Pat" Giammarco takes inspiration from the ways of his home town of Sulmona, Italy, where meat, cheese, milk, herbs, and vegetables are bought fresh from the market. "You make things that are more natural. You eat really healthy, really good," he said in an interview with Marco’s Pizza.

Besides the taste, Marco’s Pizza puts plenty of emphasis on quick service. They understand that every minute waiting for pizza is torture. To that end, the chain organizes in-house championships to find who amongst its employees makes the perfect pepperoni pizza the fastest. In 2018, The Daily Times reported that the record was 48 seconds. The next year, according to NBC24, it was an impressive 39.7 seconds! By the way, Marco’s standard for an ideal pepperoni pizza has 40 pepperoni slices on top. Yes, employees really do count them.

A search for a good tuxedo led to the foundation of Marco’s Pizza

Pasquale Giammarco of Marco's Pizza

According to QSR magazine, Marco’s Pizza is currently the only national pizza chain in the United States founded by an Italian. Pat Giammarco was just nine when his family moved from Italy to Michigan, where he worked in his dad’s pizzeria. Giammarco founded his own restaurant, Marco’s Pizza, in 1978 in Toledo, Ohio. But why Toledo?

"A friend of mine was getting married in Monroe, Michigan, and we came to Toledo to rent tuxedos," Giammarco recalled in an interview. Upon reaching the city, though, he was struck with the idea of starting a pizza place there. "That was in July 1978," he says. When the initial planning began, many asked him why he would think to start his own restaurant. Giammarco said that he simply knew that his pizzas were better than the others.

It became a hit as soon as it was founded. "Fortunately, it was as good as I thought," he told Marco’s Pizza. "[Customers] would come from 20 miles away a lot of times. And we just started opening up more locations where we knew people were coming from."

Marco’s Pizza has a learning lab to train franchisees

Marco's Pizza with tomatoes and olives

To become a restaurant franchise owner of Marco’s Pizza, you must go through rigorous training that includes a training period of eight weeks, where the franchisees are given an in-depth introduction to the culture and operations of Marco’s Pizza. In the last week of the training, Marco’s Franchising says, the franchisee ‘students’ must make pizzas for the corporate staff at the learning lab in Toledo, Ohio. At the end of their course, they earn their certificate of completion and become Marco’s freshly trained franchisees.

Making pizza is not an easy affair. This is especially so at Marco’s, where the dough is made from scratch every day. The tomato sauce is an accurate recreation of the Giammarco family recipe, according to Ohio Business magazine. The sauce uses imported herbs and spices and vine-ripened Roma tomatoes. Meanwhile, the cheese they use at their locations is a mysterious three-cheese blend that is never frozen.

The learning lab can get serious when the franchisees are trained in ‘people development’ and ‘operational excellence’, but things can be fun, too. It’s a space to let the creative juices flow and experiment with dishes that could be potential additions to Marco’s menu, like the Chicken Fresco pizza, Grilled Chicken Florentine pizza or the Roma Meat pizza, all born within the walls of the 3,500 square-foot lab. So were some of the restaurant’s signature desserts, according to Marco’s Franchising, like its S’mores and Double Chocolate brownies.

Marco’s Pizza offers pizzas without the crust

Pizza bowls from Marco's Pizza

You would think that all the goodness of the pizza is outweighed by what some claim is its unhealthiest component: the crust. Willing to take the risk, Marco’s Pizza simply took crusts out of the equation. Their new menu item, the Pizza Bowl, comes with all the toppings and sauce you would find on the pizza, minus the crust. By giving this new item a permanent spot on their menu since 2020, Yahoo Money reports, they became the first national pizza chain in the country to regularly put out a pizza without the carby crust.

The pizza bowls are obviously targeted towards the burgeoning number of people looking for low-carb, high-protein options. As Steve Seyferth, SVP and Chief Experience Officer at Marco’s Pizza told Yahoo Money, the chain is simply adapting to the trend. "While other brands have developed gluten-free or make-your-own products in the QSR space, this concept is bold and refreshing – it will transform the way people eat and enjoy their pizza," he said.

The bowls come in three options: Deluxe, All Meat, and Garden. Have they been welcomed with large bites like the pizzas with Marco’s’ signature-thin crust? As far as the reviews on Reddit go, not really. While many seem willing to give it a shot for the love of the toppings, some do not hesitate to admit that they really miss a classic pizza crust.

At Marco’s Pizza, you can order an award-winning pizza

Sharing Marco's Pizza

Pizzas are great by themselves, but when they carry the validation of being the ‘best gourmet pizza’ at a championship, it’s even better. Matt Swan, general manager of Marco’s Pizza in Las Vegas, won the title for the chain’s White Cheezy Pizza — a staple on Marco’s menu — at the California Pizza Championships in 2006. White Cheezy Pizza contains bacon, onions, sliced tomatoes, garlic Parmesan sauce, feta, and their signature three-cheese blend.

On the occasion, Jack Butorac Jr., president of Marco’s Franchising had said that the achievement was remarkable as Swan had competed against five-star chefs to emerge the winner. The win had also come at a time when Marco’s was about to expand to California (via Business Wire).

But what’s better than being the creators of one award-winning pizza? Being the creators of two award-winning pizzas, of course. In 2015, the ‘Pepperoni Magnifico‘ bagged the coveted silver prize in the traditional division of the International Pizza Challenge at the 31st International Pizza Expo, held in Las Vegas, Nevada. That was their debut in the pizza expo, a four-day trade show that pits the best pizza makers in the world against each other to prove that their pie is the best.

Marco’s Pizza has been using old world pepperoni long before it became a social media trend

Pepperoni pizza from Marco's Pizza

Marco’s Pizzas were topped with something called "roni cups" well before the topping took over social media. Also known as cup and char or old-world pepperoni, crispy roni cups are an alternative to the otherwise flat and chewy pepperoni slices you see on other pizzas.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the old world pepperoni was "created by Italian-Americans about a century ago, was originally made with natural casings that were left on the product as it was sliced. The casing contracted a bit during cooking, causing slices to pucker." But as the production increased post World War 2, the casing was made artificial and had to be peeled off before the pepperoni was cut into slices. Without the casing, the pepperoni bits lay flat and didn’t curl up. The old world pepperoni is more expensive, so much so that, as per Eater, they cost Williamsburg Pizza in New York 75 percent more than when they used the normal ones.

Despite the cost, Marco’s Pizza has embraced roni cups since 2008. They introduced their Pepperoni Magnifico pizza, complete with a mix of old school and classic pepperoni, on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. It’s been so popular that the brand has noticed an increased demand for the more expensive pepperoni, according to the Post Bulletin.

Marco’s Pizza was the best pizza brand of 2019

Sharing pizza like Marco's Pizza

There is a lot of competition in the world of pizza. For instance, pizza giants such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s each boasts thousands of stores in the United States, according to The Balance Small Business. So, it comes as a real surprise that Marco’s Pizza, which just crawled to the relatively measly 1,000 store mark in 2020, was judged the best pizza brand of the year in 2019. According to a press release from Marco’s Pizza, it was called the most loved and the most trusted pizza restaurant amongst consumers polled by a Harris Poll EquiTrend Study.

"Our brand equity scored higher than all other pizza chain brands including Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars and Papa John’s," states the company’s website.

The Harris Poll study reveals the top brands in various categories such as media, travel, entertainment, retail, besides the pizza restaurant category where Marco’s Pizza earned its top spot. The study was based on a survey in which over 45,000 U.S. consumers took part. Marco’s Pizza was among only three pizza chains to make it to Newsweek magazine’s 2019 America’s Best Customer Service Awards. Newsweek worked with Statista, a global research firm, to get the opinions of an estimated 20,000 consumers on a range of brands, meaning that Marco’s is in pretty good company.

Marco’s Pizza is also one of the fastest growing pizza chains in the US

Marco's Pizza box

Marco’s Pizza is not just amongst the most loved and trusted pizza restaurants in the U.S., but it is also one of the fastest-growing chains in the nation. In 2017, Nation’s Restaurant News placed it in the third position overall. In 2004, Marco’s had just 126 locations. Cut to 2020, and it has opened its 1000th store in Florida. It’s also the sixth-largest pizza chain in Restaurant Business’ ‘Top 500 Chains’ list.

One of the key persons responsible for this rapid growth of Marco’s Pizza is Jack Butorac, the current president, chairman, and CEO of Marco’s Franchising LLC. He had just retired from Tumbleweed restaurants in 2002 before Marco’s founder Pat Giammarco hired him as a consultant. Butorac recalls visiting different locations of Marco’s Pizza and being impressed by the quality of the food in every store. He realized that while they had a great product, they didn’t know how to brand it or how to position themselves in the big competitive world of pizzerias (via Pizza Marketplace).

Butorac ended up hiring many new top executives and brought in a new financial plan that allowed Marco’s Pizza franchisees to keep opening new stores. These changes, coupled with the delicious pizzas served at their stores, cemented Marco’s position as a top competitor in the pizza world.

Marco’s Pizza got into a legal feud with its long-time supplier

Law and order for Marco's Pizza

What started off as a solid long-term relationship between Marco’s Pizza and Sofo Foods, a large food distributor in the Midwest, turned ugly in 2010. Marco’s Pizza decided to break its association with the distributor, which had been the main supplier for the chain for 30 years. After the split, Sofo Foods filed a lawsuit against Marco’s Pizza for defamation, fraud, and conspiracy, among other allegations.

As Restaurant Business reported, "Sofo and its entity A&M Cheese allege that Marco’s and its executives fraudulently induced Sofo into a business relationship, while the franchisor had no intention of entering into the promised contract." Sofo Foods claimed that the executives of the pizza chain conspired to destroy the distributor’s business relationships and drawn in franchisees as customers of the chain’s new vendor, Marco’s Pizza Distribution. Some franchisees and even the founder Pasquale Giammarco himself voicing their concerns against the management’s decision to cut Sofo Foods as their distributor.

The case was closed in 2012, with Marco’s agreement to contract with Sofo Foods as their distributor until the end of 2014. They also paid Sofo a hefty $800,000 sum, according to Marco’s Pizza’s Franchise Disclosure Document released in 2016.

At some Marco’s Pizza locations, you can order a movie along with your pizza

Man eating pizza on bed in front of a laptop

The only thing better than renting a movie to watch on a Friday night is getting a box of pizza along with it. This is a dream come true with the agreement between the video rental chain Family Video and Marco’s Pizza. In 2012, Family Video decided to be a franchisee of Marco’s Pizza and house the pizza chain within 350 of its stores. The deal meant that Marco’s Pizza would take over up to 1,500 square feet out with the 7,000 square-foot space in an individual Family Video store (via Cleveland.com).

The arrangement couldn’t have been better. In the Family Video stores that have a Marco’s inside them, you can choose a movie to rent while you wait for your pizza. If you are booking online, there are options for both pizzas and movies that you can order in the same session. If you’re calling to place an order, simply ask them to put you through to a Family Video employee to check if they have a particular movie that you want. If they have it, you get your pizza order delivered along with the movie of your choice. Once done with the movie, you can simply return the rented movie to the pizza delivery driver (via Wisconsin Rapids Tribune).

A reality show brought change in policies within Marco’s Pizza

Marco's Pizza delivery sign on car

Everyone needs a reality check from time to time. For Bryon Stephens, whom CBS reports joined the company as its President and Chief Operating Officer in 2004, that came through an episode of the Emmy Award-winning reality show Undercover Boss. This show requires that high-level executives take ‘ordinary’ jobs within their company. Along the way, execs get a different perspective on their work and often learn what the employees really think of them, all captured using hidden cameras.

In the 2016 episode that featured Marco’s Pizza, Stephens gave up the comfort of his plush office room to work as a delivery driver, pizza maker, and even as a cashier. He also helped load trucks at the company’s distribution center. Talking about the unique experience, he said that "[b]eing on Undercover Boss provided a golden opportunity to get an inside look from the perspective of the employee, the franchisee and the customer. The discoveries I made during the journey were eye-opening" (via Charlotte Observer).

He was moved by the experience and wanted others on the corporate side to get a taste of what goes on in ground zero. As a result, Byron brought in a new policy that required every corporate staff member to spend at least one day a year at a franchise pizza store. The only difference? No hidden cameras.

The interior of a Marco’s Pizza store is designed to look like an urban Italian kitchen

Interior of a Marco's Pizza restaurant

Some of Marco’s Pizza locations look different than others. That’s because the chain decided to bring about a shift in the design of its store interiors in 2018. While both the old and new designs had their roots in cities of Italy, there was an enormous difference in the look and feel. While most of the old Marco’s Pizza stores were built in ‘Tuscan Style’, the new ones built after 2018 have a modern ‘Milan style’ feel to them, according to the Phoenix Business Journal.

Elaborating on this difference, Ron Stilwell, Marco’s Area Representative, said that "The older style buildings were rustic, earthy and more based in nature, representing the Italian countryside, thus named the ‘Tuscan style’." Referring to the new stores in the Phoenix area, he said the new restaurants were "headed toward clean linear tile and lines. This is projecting the quality product that we serve, through the conveyance that you are in the urban Italian kitchen that is open, clean lined, and welcoming."

Arizona was the first place where all Marco’s Pizza restaurants were built with this new ‘Milan’ theme. Besides the clean, modern look of the place, Marco’s website states that the new design has helped create "dramatic cost savings". It has reduced the number and variety of tiles, introduced drop ceilings instead of the more expensive open ones, and encouraged smaller store sizes.

Some independent pizzerias have had to change their names because of Marco’s Pizza

Tearing a sheet of paper because of Marco's Pizza

For those who ask "what’s in a name?", there’s actually quite a lot there. When you run a business for decades but have to end up changing its name because of a new challenger, it can be a tad inconvenient. As per the Dallas Observer, a Dallas-based pizzeria formerly known as Pizza by Marco went by that name until it came up against a trademark issue with Marco’s Pizza. The Dallas-based chain, unfortunately, hadn’t trademarked their business name and decided to give up their half-century-old title. In 2013, they renamed themselves My Family’s Pizza instead.

More than one pizza chain has faced issues with Marco’s Pizza. In fact, it looks like Marco’s is a popular name when it comes to pizzerias. In 2015, Westword reports, a Colorado-based pizzeria called Marco’s Coal Fired Pizza decided to change its name to Racca’s Pizzeria Napoletana. The Colorado chain, run by a husband and wife duo, didn’t want any confusion with Marco’s Pizza that was expanding to Denver, especially after they learned that the Mayor of Casper, Wyoming had gone to the wrong Marco’s.

In yet another case and state, the entry of Marco’s Pizza into the local arena affected another small business. The North Carolina-based Marco’s Pizzeria, founded in 1994, was given a cease-and-desist letter by Marco’s Pizza. The pizzeria had to change its name to 828 Family Pizzeria to avoid confusion and comply with the trademark laws.