How We Got Here

Making MOD: How Scott and Ally Svenson Remade Pizza

Burritos don’t have the fast casual market cornered.

By Allecia Vermillion July 6, 2015 Published in the July 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Lou Daprile

Shuttling their four boys between school and activities, Scott and Ally Svenson quickly learned you can only eat at Chipotle so often. So in 2008 the couple launched pizza’s answer to the fast-casual trend: Customers select their own toppings and pay a flat price, no matter how many meats and veggies they pile on. After several rounds of investment funding, including a recent $40 million infusion, MOD Pizza (short for “Made on Demand”) has grown from that first downtown Seattle store to a bona fide national brand, while hiring employees who are determined to turn their life around.

1984–91: Overseas Investments

After graduating college (Harvard ’88) Scott moved to New York, then London for jobs in investment banking and health care. Ally joined him abroad after her own graduation (Wellesley ’89) and a two-year newsroom program at KING5: “I was so naive; I didn’t have a work permit or anything,” she recalls. Naive, but efficient—Ally soon landed work in publishing. “I couldn’t be legally paid, so initially they paid me in books.” 

1991–94: A Caffeine Jones

Upon arriving in London, Ally started searching for a reliably good spot for a latte. Three years later, she was still looking. She even offered to help Starbucks scout British locations, but the company was busy expanding in Japan. In 1994 Ally left her publishing job and the Svensons opened a cafe, Seattle Coffee Company. The couple needed their caffeine, sure, she says, “but it was also about bringing a bit of Seattle there.”

1995–98: Growing Like Mad

By the third store, Scott joined Ally full time. “We had absolutely no retail or coffee experience,” he remembers. But by May of 1998 Seattle Coffee Company had 65 UK locations, including eight that their small staff somehow opened in the 12 days leading up to Christmas 1997. They didn’t even know enough about the business to realize how crazy that pace was. “We had signed leases,” Scott says. “We needed to get it done.” 

1998–2013 From Coffee to Pizza 

In 1998, Starbucks acquired all the Svensons’ stores. “I don’t think you realize how much risk you took,” CEO Howard Schultz later told the couple of their rapid expansion. (They’d also begun helping a London deli and food shop expand and go public.) After relocating back to Seattle the Svensons weren’t looking for another retail project—until they observed how little the midrange pizza market had changed since the Great California Pizza Kitchen Barbecue Chicken Disruption of the early ’90s. After some tinkering and input from contacts from their Starbucks days, the Svensons opened the first MOD Pizza in 2008 in downtown Seattle.

2013–Present: The Mod Squad

After honing the business model and expanding locally, MOD shifted its focus to national growth via franchise—14 stores in 2013, 31 in 2014, and more than 100 locations by the end of this year. The plan for 2016: Double that again. Eventually a hiring ethos evolved: “Giving opportunities to people who fell off the ladder,” as Scott puts it. Many MOD Squad members have served time in prison or overcome trouble with drugs and alcohol. “When we get to the end of the journey,” Scott says, “we can turn around and tell our boys we are proud of this.” u

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