Stoner's brings different flavor to pizza scene.

 
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This is not your father's pizza joint.

Regional pizza chain Stoner's Pizza opened its first Columbia location last month at 1216 Washington St. in downtown Columbia. But the Arcade Mall store and its brick-and-mortar ilk are not the focus of chief concept officer Nick Bergelt's wide-ranging vision.

Bergelt, a 2007 graduate of the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business, is the founder of HospitalityX, a holding company that took over the Stoner's Pizza Joint brand in January 2018. The new owners acquired a chain with more than 25 locations but "zero technology," Bergelt said. "They were taking orders by fax. Therein lay the opportunity, just because it was so antiquated. It was a blank-canvas opportunity to rebuild the brand."

After shutting down 12 underperforming stories, Bergelt's group launched a wholesale rebranding effort, using a technology-centric approach to target a millennial market accustomed to on-demand ordering.

"We strongly believe that the brick-and-mortar experience is going to decline over time and people are going to expect what they need to show up whenever they want it," Bergelt said.

More than 50% of Stoner's revenue comes from delivery, Bergelt said, spurring a digital-first strategy that will include the rollout of a customized app this month. That doesn't mean, however, that Stoner's is an impersonal company.

"We're a hospitality-first culture," said Bergelt, with an emphasis on customer service even if that experience consists of a three-minute interaction with a pizza-delivery driver.

To that end, Stoner's chose not to partner with a third-party delivery service such as Grubhub. "If something goes wrong with the delivery, (customers) don't blame Uber or the third-party service," Bergelt said. "They just chalk it up to the brand."

That said, Bergelt envisions radical changes in the delivery experience. Investments in artificial intelligence and logistics software may soon lead to an autonomous car carrying pizza in a heated cabinet with a code for customers to enter, voice-recognition ordering or pizzas dropped on doorsteps by drone.

"All of this used to be just science fiction, but the reality is all of the technology is there," Bergelt said. "We're constantly trying to re-envision not only what the pizza space looks like but effectively the restaurant industry in general."

Bergelt has been immersed in that industry since graduating from USC with a double major in entrepreneurial studies and...

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