Meet the Chef: Topp'd Pizza

Published on August 14, 2023

Chef/owner Chad Talbott dicing onions inside Topp'd Pizza + Salads' merchant stall

In this hectic time of year, a piping-hot, made-to-order, high-quality, ultra-fresh pizza prepared in under five minutes seems almost too good to be true. But if you’d seen the work and expertise chef/owner Chad Talbott and his team at Topp’d Pizza + Salads had put into each component of that pie in the hours and days before it came out of the oven, you wouldn’t wonder why each bite is just so good.

Chad knows pizza. He started working in the field when he was a teenager. In college, he realized his knack for the restaurant industry could turn into a successful career. He worked his way up the ladder at a pizza chain, moving from restaurant manager to district manager to corporate training director.

Then he took the leap and bought a restaurant franchise.

“I dove in headfirst,” Chad said. “I was like “Well, I’m tired of being somebody else’s second in command. I’m going to be my own boss. That works in some aspects. In other aspects, it’s incredibly difficult. I think a lot of people at the Market have learned that, too. The idea of becoming your own boss is awesome. The execution of that is horrible. It’s super challenging.”

After five years running his small group of restaurants, he decided to return to his roots in pizza – but with a twist.

“The original goal was fast service, fast-casual, like Chipotle for pizza,” he said. “Come in, grab your food, and it’s extremely fresh within like four minutes.”

The first Topp’d Pizza + Salads location opened off Rainbow Boulevard near the University of Kansas Medical Center. Its high-quality ingredients, fast-casual concept and popular menu items drew the attention of Lenexa City staff, who were looking for merchants for the future Lenexa Public Market.

“It was getting built at the same time,” Chad recalled. “We really didn’t have an idea fleshed out of what the market was going to be, which is really cool. It’s exciting to be on the ground level of something like that.”

As the Market opened its doors to the public in September 2017, so did Topp’d Pizza’s Lenexa location.

“On opening day, we’re up and running, and then one of our ovens just crapped out,” Chad said. “I had to call somebody for emergency service. We had to shut down for about four hours that that first day. We got through lunch and we were like, “Well, we’re out of this, this, this, this and this.” We had to get a guy over there to fix the oven and make what we can. We thought we’ll be back open for dinner and we’ll just serve what we have.

“And the response was overwhelming. Lenexa is awesome. You see the people that came out and the overwhelming support of the community. That’s really what sells it.”

“When the groundwork was being laid, this was all a field. Then Vision 2020 and all that planning came together. But we were still asking, ‘Well, are people really gonna bite on this? Is this going to be something nobody understands? They’re going to go, see it one time, and leave.’ But people came in and were like, ‘No, this is really awesome, and we want to see it succeed. We want to see it grow.’ Over the last seven years, it’s matured into something completely different than it was originally, and people are buying into it now even more, every single day.”

“I think it’s awesome. I feed off that. I want to see this place packed all the time. Anytime I come in I know it’s a good Farmer Market day or a good Kid Makers Market when I can’t find a parking spot in the garage and I have to park on the roof.”

“It’s really cool to see, because you have this huge swath of people that my business wouldn’t have had otherwise. You wouldn’t have that diversity of customer that comes in, which is really, really cool. That’s what makes the Market special. People compare us to other food halls in Kansas City, and the vibe is completely different.”

The Market, Chad knew right away was going to be a unique experience. This was uncharted territory for himself and the other chefs he was working alongside.

“Relatively, you could kind of do whatever you want. For the first time, we were in a situation with so many people in the same room doing basically the same thing. I was like, “OK, how do we all get along? How do we make this work?” There’s a lot of question marks. From the very get-go, the Market was really cool. There were a lot of failures. I think that was expected, you know. But there have been quite a few successes, too – it’s really awesome to see. I still keep up with Katie from Chewology. It’s so cool to see how much Alejandra has grown from that first week we were there.”

“Coming in from the get-go was really cool, because you got to see so many different people’s takes on how they want to operate a business,” Chad said. “Everyone approaches thing differently. Everyone’s coming from different walks of life, different aspects.”

Working in this open environment with a dynamic group of other chefs and business concepts is a prime environment for testing your creativity and honing your menu.

Calzones seem like a natural pairing with pizza, right? But Chad quickly discovered that these take twice as long as a traditional pie.

“When all of a sudden, people are waiting 15 more minutes for the food, and they thought it was supposed to be fast, certain things just kind of have to die,” he said. “You move on, you figure out what works and stick to that.”

“We did a really good calzone that had a smores filling, and it was awesome. But it was a huge pain to make, and it never got ordered. We have so many dessert options. Like I’m not trying to compete with Kate (Smith of Butterfield’s Bakery and Market and Kate Smith Soiree), because she's knocking it out of the park.”

“We tried experimenting, like doing brunch for a little while and trying to be more open during breakfast hours,” Chad said. “I think that was a learning experience. We have to focus on what we’re good at and what the customer is willing to accept as far as change. That didn’t really take off for us. But now you have other people here crushing it at breakfast. Alejandra can hardly keep up with the breakfast burritos every day she’s here.

“I don’t need to be in that spot. I have my niche. There's a complementary aspect of all the vendors that’s really cool. We can kind of hit all the bases and scratch the itch for everybody.”

The open, collaborative setup lets merchants explore fresh opportunities to meet customer demands. One of the biggest recent successes at Topp’d has been its bar. While some merchants had served alcoholic beverages, you had to wait through the long line of food-buyers to get your drink.

“That was huge, not just for sales or business, but also for customers. So many people have come in here and said, ‘This is what we’ve needed.’ You can just talk to somebody and grab a mixed drink or a beer.”

Their classic mixed drinks and curated lineup of local craft beers have been a hit. Other experiments have paid off in unexpected ways.

“The breakfast pizza,” he added, “we still sell a whole bunch of. But it’s really funny because it’s at like seven o’clock at night.”

The niche Chad referenced centers around delivering ultra-fresh pizza, salads and subs fast. At the core of Topp’d is a resolute commitment to quality.

“We have never stopped being a scratch kitchen,” he said. “We’ve worked that way from day one. I think a very small percentage of our customers know that. They’re like ‘Oh, this is really good. Why is it so good to me?’ Because I make it here. We made those meatballs this morning from scratch. We grilled that chicken and made that dough yesterday. We sliced that pepperoni and chopped those vegetables.”

“The trifecta of a perfect kitchen is no microwave, no freezer, no can opener. I can’t get away with no can opener, unfortunately, because there’s something to be said about getting tomato paste premade. But I’ve got two out of three.”

“It costs more to do things the right way. It takes a lot more time and a lot more labor. But there is huge value in doing that because it just tastes so much better. That’s what makes us different.”

To deliver a great scratch pizza in flash, you’ve got to commit to extensive prep work.

“I can make you a salad in 30 seconds, but that’s because there was probably two hours of work that sent into every single thing to get it to that point,” Chad said. “From the customer’s perspective, you’re like, “Wow, I ordered that and four minutes later it’s in my hand, and it’s fresh.” Yeah, but you weren’t here this morning. You weren’t here last night. You didn’t see everything that went into it. You can do it fast when you do as much prep as you possibly can to get it as close to the finished product as possible. And then the customer comes in, you shoot all the guns at once. That’s the execution that gets you the volume you need. Execution is huge.”

The Market’s design means customers get an up-close look at that execution. Each merchant’s display kitchen allows customers to see their meal being prepared.

“You can’t fake certain things,” Chad said. “There’s nowhere to hide in the concept we have, which is great for the customer. And it’s great because it pushes all of us to do better. It’s also a little scary and a little stressful – but any kind of restaurant environment is going to be stressful. I think that really makes it really rewarding too. That’s the reason I’ve done this so long, why I’ve had the same staff for so long. It’s not just about the paycheck. It’s about the value in what you do.

“It’s that instant gratification, that dopamine hit of knowing you just made like 80 people happy. It’s why people get addicted to the restaurant industry. We all have that shared experience of knowing what it’s like to have a great meal.”

The steady lines and strong sales at Topp’d are evidence that a lot of people have had a great meal there. Over time, Chad has honed his menu into a fine-tuned list of favorites and flavorful – but quirkier – options.

“It disappoints me when I see people come in and continuously order a cheese or pepperoni pizza, but that’s going to be the main chunk of my business,” he said. “If you can’t make a good cheese pizza, you don’t deserve to be in business. But I always let people know there’s stuff toward the bottom end of the menu they should try.”

Case in point: the sausage and apple pizza.

 “It gets massively overlooked because people don’t know what the heck that is. It’s goat cheese, olive oil, caramelized onions, Italian sausage – fresh from Scimeca’s sausage company – a balsamic glaze and then apple slices on top.

 “People are questioning apples on a piece of meat, but you’re cooking pineapple on pizza for some people. We use gala apple, so it’s not like a super-tart Granny Smith apple pie type thing. It goes really well with the goat cheese, the sweetness of the onions and the salty sausages.”

 If you ask Chad, his favorite is one of the most difficult for his crew to prepare – but that hard work pays off in a big, delicious way.

 “My favorite is still the Thai Peanut pizza,” he said. “It’s probably the most complicated sauce we make. It’s a very complex flavor – it's very spicy, very sweet, probably the most umami thing we’ve got on the menu.”

 Customers appreciate that the menu stays pretty consistent with the occasional unusual option.

 “Honestly, I’m not trying to have a specialty pizza at all times, too,” Chad said. “You don’t always need to have that new fancy, shiny thing. But if you knock it out of the park, you want to bring it back, because people are happy.”

 Customers will specifically ask Chad about seasonal pies like the taco pizza, the bacon squash pizza, or the Pig, Fig and Goat – a savory combination of prosciutto, fig jam and goat cheese.

 The occasional specialty pizza and the other new recipes Chad develops for events like the Farm to Table dinner satiate his need to be creative and customers’ cravings for the dynamic, ever-changing dishes they’ve come to expect from the Public Market and merchants like Topp’d.

 “We’re kind of a chameleon. It’s really cool, because we’ve changed and adapted, you know?”

 “Listen to me,” he said. “I run my own business, but I use the word ‘we’ when I talk about the Public Market. It’s like I’m built into the wall. I feel like I’m furniture now.”

 “We have people come in and tell me they hope everything’s going OK. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I’m going to be here for 20 years or until they kick me out.”

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