Jovante Wood has nearly two dozen tattoos, but this is his first company logo.
He got his last tattoo, an outer space motif that takes up most of his forearm, two weeks ago. Now he’s getting a three-inch ampersand that’s part of the logo of &pizza, the District-based company where he has worked for 11 months.
“I like the business and how welcoming it is,” the 22-year-old said as a tattoo artist injected ink into his bicep. “This is probably my best job, ever.”
So, he says, he decided to make his commitment to the company permanent.
And he is not the only one: More than 50 &pizza employees have the company’s ampersand, which it has trademarked, tattooed on their bodies. One employee has it etched onto her ribs. Others have it emblazoned on their chests, necks, wrists and behind their ears. The practice has become so popular that chief executive Michael Lastoria now foots the bill for any worker — and the occasional customer — who wants to get inked.
“We’re not doing this because we want [employees] to swear their allegiance to us like we’re some insane dictator,” said Lastoria, 36, who co-founded the fast-casual eatery four years ago. “We’re doing it because we listen to our people. They love the symbol, they love the look of it and they love what it stands for.”
The ampersand, he says, represents the company’s willingness to listen to its employees. It was a service-line worker who first came up with the idea for the tattoos three years ago. Lastoria remembers thinking it was a great idea: “It really struck a chord,” he said. “So many employees started saying they felt a personal connection to the company.”
Lastoria calls his employees “tribe members” and last month raised the company’s starting wage to $11.75 an hour. Paying for tattoos, he says, is another way of showing employees that he welcomes their ideas.
“Outside of the fact that the ‘&’ is part of our brand, we don’t look at this as a branding opportunity,” Lastoria said. “What makes this special for us is that the idea came from our people.”
As corporate logos go, &pizza’s ampersand is relatively innocuous, employees say. Even if they end up leaving the company on bad terms, well, the symbol could mean just about anything.
“It’s just a a really cool idea,” said Brittney Wilkins, 23, a shift leader who last year got a red ampersand behind her right ear. “Even if I don’t work here forever, I won’t be upset. It’s a fun place to work, and I have a lot of good memories here.”
The company, which specializes in made-to-order pizzas that sell for about $10, started in 2012 with one location on H Street NE. It has since grown to include 15 area stores and roughly 374 employees.
Lastoria began paying for workers’ tattoos a couple of years ago. These days, he routinely hosts “casting calls” for groups of interested employees to drop by a local tattoo studio, generally BritishInk on H Street NE, for a free session.
The company is increasingly extending the offer of a free tattoo to its customers, too. When &pizza opened its first Baltimore location in May, it promised tattoos — and free pizza for a year — to the first five people in line. Eight people ended up with “&” tattoos. They included a woman in her 50s who had never gotten a tattoo before, and a man who got one that took up almost his entire bicep.
“We tend to recommend that it’s smaller in size, but if somebody really wants to go for it, they’re welcome to,” Lastoria said. “Everyone has a different idea of what a tattoo should be and how big it should be.”
Long before Lastoria got into the pizza business, he made a name for himself in marketing. He founded Innovation Ads, a media services firm, in 2002 and sold it four years later to Seaport Capital, a New York-based private-equity firm. He spent the next several years working in advertising and helping other companies perfect their branding.
But, Lastoria says, he was itching to create his own product. He and co-founder Steve Salis decided on pizza, he says, in part because it was so familiar. (Salis is no longer with the company.)
“Everybody knew pizza, but we wanted to figure out how to do it better,” he said. “We wanted to make it customizable and quick.”
But perhaps even more important was the company’s branding. Lastoria and Salis spent a year and a half coming up with the name &pizza — meant to represent the connections between people and pizza, he said. It took another seven or eight rounds of designs to come up with the right ampersand, which they custom-made with a designer in New York.
“This isn’t just your usual ampersand,” Lastoria said. “It’s got curves. It’s got personality. We wanted a symbol that was iconic but could also stand on its own.”
Stephanie Neville was among the first employees to get a company tattoo. She got hers back in 2014, after being promoted to store leader.
“I had to really think about it because I don’t get tattoos unless they have real meaning,” said Neville, 29, who works at the company’s K Street store. “I need to make sure I’m not going to regret it.”
The “&” on her left ankle is her fourth tattoo. Others include the words “God’s miracle” on her back, which she got after a car accident, a star on her wrist and a cross bearing her grandmother’s name on her calf. But none commands as much attention as the ampersand.
“People ask me about it all the time,” she said. “They’ll be like, ‘Wait, do you really have your job’s logo on you?’ It’s definitely a conversation starter.”
Lastoria, for his part, has seven tattoos — but no ampersand.
He says he is waiting to fulfill a personal goal, a “touchy-feely” milestone that he won’t reveal, before he gets his company’s logo on his body.
“It will happen in time,” he said. “And when it does, it will be a very public thing.”
Wood is getting the ampersand on his bicep, sandwiched between tattoos of his birth date and his grandmother’s name, mostly because that’s where he had an opening. Almost all of his tattoos are on his arms, although he has a few on his chest, including the D.C. flag, and the words “faith,” “love” and “family first.” Next, he plans to get his niece’s name on his back.
He said he had been coveting the &pizza tattoo for months, ever since he heard about Lastoria’s offer.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” said Wood, who makes $11.75 an hour taking pizzas out of the oven and boxing them up. “I don’t care if I don’t work at &pizza next year or the year after that. I like the business, and I like the tattoo.”
Before &pizza, Wood spent a year and a half cleaning the inside of United Airlines planes at Dulles International Airport. Prior to that, he worked at McDonald’s and Starion Energy. (“No way I would get those tattoos,” he said. “No, no, no.”)
When he was hired at &pizza last summer after three rounds of interviews, Wood says he wasn’t sure what to expect. But he has made a lot of friends there and feels like he’s a part of something big. On weekends, he often works until 4:30 in the morning helping close the store.
“At first, it was just a job,” he said as his tattoo neared completion. “But when I actually started working, it became more than that. I felt like this was the job for me. I love dealing with people, I love talking to guests.”
The ampersand on his arm takes 23 minutes from start to finish. When it’s done, he walks to the mirror, rolls up his sleeve and flexes his arm.
“I like it,” he said, nodding his head. “Yeah. That looks good.”
The tattoo artist, Aaron Trimiar, goes over the basics: He needs to keep the area covered with plastic wrap for at least two hours and after that, wash it with warm water and antibacterial soap.
“Of course you know it’s going to get drier and drier,” Trimiar continued. “It’s going to start peeling and itching.”
But Wood keeps his gaze on the mirror. He stretches out his arm and flexes it back in.
“It’s cool,” he said, adding that many of his co-workers, including his boss, are also planning to get the tattoo. “I’m going to go rub this in my manager’s face now. He’s been talking about it forever, but I beat him to it.”
He will have to eventually show his mother, too, he says, although he knows she won’t be pleased. His friends — well, he says, they just think he’s crazy.
“They laugh,” he said. “Their biggest thing was, ‘You don’t know if you’re going to be working there forever.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s just a tattoo, man.’ ”