When Canadian food chain Pita Pit opened in New Zealand a decade ago, it was the first time a store had been tried outside of North America. But now, there are more than 100 stores across the country, 14 in Australia, more than 80 franchisees, and upwards of 1200 employees.
Pita Pit New Zealand director Chris Henderson reckoned this was no way near "peak" pita, however.
Pita Pit NZ franchise co-owners Duane Dalton, left, and Chris Henderson brought the chain to the country about a decade ago.
"I think it depends on every move we make from now.
"Because if we did the same thing as yesterday we get the same results - and that's good, don't get me wrong, but if you look around every other industry, every food offering is doing something healthy.
"And that's not good enough, healthy is not good enough now, it was good 10 years ago, but it's now a point of entry just to open a food shop."
Henderson brought Pita Pit, which makes customised pita wraps and originated in Canada 10 years earlier, to the country in August 2007, after turning his one-year OE into six seasons as a ski instructor in California.
As a fan of the food, he figured there might be a commercial opportunity in New Zealand, where there was not a lot of "healthier, better choices".
Together with Duane Dalton, the teachers-turned-business partners secured the rights to Australasia and opened the first store in Auckland's Takapuna: one they still own.
"It was a massive learning curve bringing a new brand, that hadn't been proven around the world, except in Canada and America."
Henderson said customers responded well in the first few years, but as the global financial crisis hit at about the same time, the resulting credit crunch made it hard to attract franchisees until 2010.
Then, the real growth came, with Pita Pit "rocketing" up by 15 to 20 stores on average every year.
Henderson said this was ahead of its agreement with head office in Canada, and ahead of his own expectations as well.
"We had to open a lot of stores, but not 100.
"I guess we're proud of that because a lot of people could have just thrown in the towel after a year or two."
Henderson believed Pita Pit's surge in popularity was because it was a healthier option for consumers, with lower sugar, grilled meats and healthier fillings.
This was enough to differentiate it from "another sandwich chain in the market, the largest one in the world".
The company appeared on the Deloitte Fast 50 rankings in 2013 and 2014 when its sales growth was above 200 per cent, and last year Henderson and Dalton were finalists in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
Sales growth over the last three years had averaged 25 per cent.
There had not been any store failures yet, "touch wood", but with 51 in Auckland and a New Zealand target of about 150, store growth would mostly come in Australia, where he thought the opportunity was huge.
"We could keep going, but we're very mindful of our local store owners and making sure there's a good territory for them and profitability.
"When it starts to get too big, like other brands have done, you start to internally erode."
Henderson said the company invested a lot of time into its franchisee support, and two years ago developed a business coaching network.
Each coach looked after about 20 outlets, and the company's 80 or so franchisees were very diverse.
"That coach needs to understand the nuances of every single franchisee and how he or she can work differently with every single franchisee, rather than paint a brush over every franchisee expecting every franchisee to be the same."
Pita Pit franchisee Grant Henderson, no relation, opened a stored in Lower Hutt in 2012, had owned one in Petone, and was about to open another in Upper Hutt.
He said he and his wife looked around various business opportunities, but settled on Pita Pit because it was a new brand which he thought had potential.
Head office had been supportive, and there had been a lot of changes over the years, but he said it was incumbent on franchisees to do the hard work.
"Unless you're prepared to live the franchise and work it the way they tell you, don't bother. I'm still passionate about the brand, otherwise I wouldn't be opening another store."
Last month, Pita Pit went free-range chicken, eggs and free-farmed bacon in its stores, as it shifted its focus to innovation in a world where being healthy was no longer good enough.
Henderson said it had invested in total disclosure about its food from field to plate, and was on a path towards sustainable packaging, which the franchise had taken the hit on, rather than the customer through increased prices.
"I know consumers want it, it's important, it's important to us, ethically. And secondly it opens up with the volumes.
"For example, with the 350 tonnes of chicken that we'll do this year, 55 tonnes of bacon and 100,000 eggs around the country, it allows the smaller guys, smaller food operators to be able to come in off the back of those volumes to make it easier and affordable to purchase ethically sourced foods."
- Stuff (Hamish McNicol, 09 April 2017)
It will now be even easier for residents and visitors to Mount Manganui to enjoy the fresh, healthy taste of Pita Pit with the opening of a new store this week at 217 Manganui Road.
Aaron Bennett, owner of the new Manganui Road store, says Pita Pit is a great fit for the area with its healthy ‘full disclosure food’ philosophy aligning well with the active, outdoors lifestyle that people enjoy in the Mount.
“Growing demand for a healthier alternative to traditional high-fat, high-calorie fast food has seen Pita Pit become one of the fastest growing food outlets in New Zealand in recent years, and the decision to open another store in Mount Manganui area reflects it’s popularity here.
“Pita Pit’s healthy food and healthy living approach really resonates with the people in the area, and I think locals will appreciate now having even more choice when making good food decisions on-the-go.”
There is plenty happening in-store throughout the week to celebrate the opening, including giving customers the opportunity to ‘spin the wheel’ to win Pita Pit vouchers. A new mural installation, which will depict stories of the local community, is also set to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
In the short term, the new Manganui Road store will create up to 12 full and part time jobs. The team is also looking into starting school lunch deliveries in the area to help provide healthy choices for local children, which may lead to further job opportunities.
Aaron says that Pita Pit is also committed to supporting the local community by providing Player of the Day vouchers to local spots teams, and will actively be seeking other local initiatives to get involved in.
The new store coincides with the recent introduction of free range chicken and eggs, and free farmed bacon and ham, at all 107 Pita Pit stores across New Zealand. All of Pita Pit’s free range and free farmed ingredients are sourced locally from within New Zealand – a decision the company hopes will help support local producers and further shift the dial toward ethical farming practices in this country.
Some of New Zealand’s most well-known sports stars and politicians will be serving up lunch at Pita Pit stores around the country today to mark the last day of Diabetes Action Month and celebrate the launch of our new Diabetes NZ Choice Menu.
Black Sticks player Gemma Flynn, NZ Triathlete Andrea Hewitt, Labour MP Louisa Wall, and Silver Fern Leana de Bruin will each be behind the counter at their local Pita Pit store, promoting the new menu and supporting those with diabetes and all New Zealanders to make healthier food choices.
And all day today in all Pita Pit stores, we are also offering customers the chance to Round Up their purchases to the nearest dollar, with the proceeds going to Diabetes NZ, and we will match the public donation!
Stores and Times for Diabetes supporters appearances:
Black Sticks player Gemma Flynn– Pita Pit Wairakei, CHCH 12pm – 1pm
Triathlete Andrea Hewitt – The Palms, CHCH 1pm – 2pm
Crusader Jordan Taufua – Hereford St, CHCH 2.30-3.30pm
Silver Ferns player Leana de Bruin – Pita Pit Hamilton CBD, 12.30pm – 1.30pm
Labour MP Louisa Wall – 12.30pm – 1.30pm, Pita Pit Lambton Quay, 82 Lambton Quay Wellington
Food and nutrition is another critical component in helping people to live well and to celebrate Diabetes Action Month, Pita Pit is launching a Diabetes NZ Choice range of products.
“Pita Pit’s range of fresh vegetables, grilled proteins and salad options are in-keeping with our healthy plate promotion and Pita Pit can provide choices suited not only for people with diabetes but also for those wanting to make healthier food selections.” says Crew.
The ‘Diabetes NZ Choice’ symbol will be promoted throughout Pita Pit stores nationwide and will help people with diabetes and pre-diabetes to easily identify which Pita Pit products are more suited to them and even those just wanting to follow a healthy, nutritious diet.
"Pita Pit is very committed to increasing awareness for New Zealanders of the range of healthy food options available to them,” emphasised Duane Dalton, Director of Pita Pit in New Zealand.
“We are thrilled to be in a position to help educate Kiwis about Diabetes by dishing up information around the importance of making good food choices. We serve up healthy food, not health food, and our menu includes plenty of fresh vegetables, grilled proteins and salad options, and we hope the Diabetes New Zealand Choice range in-store will make it even easier for people to make a the best food choice for them."
You wouldn’t think there is much in common between sprint kayaking, Canadian ski instructing and a Chick ‘N’ Fala pita, but ASB customers Duane Dalton and Chris Henderson are living proof that there is.
In 2006 the Kiwi business duo left their sporting careers and brought the Pita Pit franchise to NZ, the first time it had operated outside of North America. Last year they opened their 100th Australasian Pita Pit store and this year they are celebrating 10 years in business together. ”We’ve been through a huge learning curve,“ Duane reflects and their success speaks for itself.
The pair initially approached Pita Pit in Canada about bringing the healthy food franchise to New Zealand. “Back then we were just so hungry for success – we had no fear of failure,” reflects Chris. “Blissfully ignorant!” laughs Duane. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the pair were able to apply their expertise on the sporting field to business. “A game plan versus a strategic plan is not too different.” They opened their first store in Takapuna in 2007 and now they have over 100 stores across New Zealand and Australia.
Refusing to settle
However if you think that running a franchise follows a cookie cutter method, you’d be wrong. The pair quickly found themselves on a steep learning curve, “We were taught how to run a store, not a country operation.” Adapting an overseas operation for New Zealand meant they needed to ‘New Zealandise’ Pita Pit for local customers and communities, something that had never been done before. There is a clear passion in this duo, and it has existed from the start. When designing a new store, they hit a hurdle getting the existing store design into the space available. The store designer told them it couldn't be done. But Chris and Duane stayed and worked all night to nut out a solution and a way to make it fit. “We refused to settle.” This meant many long nights and plenty of hard work but 10 years later they can look back on their success with well-earned satisfaction.
Making good food irresistible
Delivering healthy food - at scale - is something the pair strive for. “We provide food that makes your body reach out and give your mind a hug,” enthuses Chris. From Whangarei to Invercargill you can get the same Pita Pit experience - something industry competitors struggle to replicate. While artisan brands and food suppliers are now plentiful, they often serve a local market but haven’t extended their food offering nationwide as Pita Pit has. And that is where the real business growth is. “We are constantly innovating at scale.”
The constant swirl of change
Change is constant in every business and for Pita Pit this is no different. Change drives innovation and in today’s world of easily available paleo snacks and clean eating, customers demand more and more. “We are restless in our approach towards innovation,” says Chris. “Customers are more aware of what they are eating and how they are eating it, so innovation is entwined through everything, whether it be sourcing suppliers, lowering salt and sugar levels or social and corporate responsibility.” Recently the pair introduced free range chicken tenders into their menu, something customers have snapped up. And innovation also comes from customers – Pita Pit has noticed the recent ‘menu hack’ of ordering a garden salad then adding chicken tenders to it. Customer driven trends like this help shape future menu options and supplier choices.
So how does a successful business partnership like this survive? “Our partnership is like a marriage. Our marriage is 10 years old and most marriages don't last that long,” Duane laughs. But joking aside, their relationship was formed on a backbone of mutual respect. “Doing what is right, not what is easy. If it is good for the brand then it is ultimately good for us.” Personal agendas are put to one side, and decisions are made together. Ego has no place in their business.
So, from peeling off saucepan labels in the middle of the night to running a franchise of over 100 stores… in just 10 years. Pretty good for a couple of Kiwi blokes.
Duane Dalton and Chris Henderson are finalists in the 2016 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards which ASB is a proud sponsor of.
We are very excited to launch our brand new website! Take a look around, we think you’ll find it easier to find your way around and more useful. Don’t forget to check out our handy Nutrition Calculator to find out exactly how good your favourite pita is!
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