Once upon a time, there was a Northwest couple living in London who yearned for something simple and oh-so Seattle — a good cup of coffee. They reached out to Starbucks, urging the company to hop the pond and set up shop. When their call went unanswered in the 1990s, the newly married couple started their own coffee company.
Scott and Ally Svenson, Bellevue High School sweethearts, started the Seattle Coffee Company with one location. He a Harvard grad and she a Wellesey grad, both had prior career experience after college — but nothing in coffee or retail. But they saw an opportunity — and went for it with gusto.
Within two years their coffee business had grown to 68 locations in the United Kingdom. Wanting a springboard into Europe, Starbucks approached the Svensons to buy the business, and they agreed to sell, and Scott stayed on as the president of Starbucks Europe in the beginning.
Their careers and life paths continued to evolve through identifying more gaps.
They helped found Carluccio’s Ltd., an Italian restaurant in the U.K., before returning to Medina with their two sons, Tristan and Dillon, in 2000. Soon after two more sons were born, Caspian and Jasper. The family was busy shuttling the boys from one event or game practice to another. It was tough to find time for a fast, affordable and healthy meal for their family on the go. Surely other families were feeling the same way.
And of course, a new business idea was born — MOD Pizza, a fast-casual pizza company headquartered in Bellevue. From a consumer standpoint, MOD operates sort of like a Subway sandwich shop. Pizza is made on demand — the guest chooses the toppings. It’s fresh and fast, and there are healthy options like fresh veggie pies.
“Pizza is the second-biggest food industry in the U.S., but there had been no innovation to pizza in many years,” Scott said. Though they had been successful entrepreneurs twice, they weren’t sure they could continue their winning streak, but there was a need for a pizza alternative. So the Svensons didn’t let a healthy dose of skepticism stop them. They opened their first shop on Sixth Avenue and Union Street in downtown Seattle in 2008.
The couple said they brought what they loved about London back home when creating MOD. “There was a certain vibe, energy, and attitude that came from the U.K. in the 1950s and 1960s,” Scott, a self-professed Hooligan, said. “We wanted to borrow some of that energy for MOD.”
The first store was a testing ground, helping the couple figure out if the fast casual pizza concept could work, especially as the economy hurdled toward a full-blown recession. “We asked ourselves, ‘How low can we go?’” Ally explained. “It was important to us that there was that combination of customers coming in because the price point was accessible at a scary time, but also we were hiring people and doing our best to pay as much as we possibly could.”
In 2009, the couple opened three more stores — University District, Bellevue, and Capitol Hill. The latter eventually closed, but Bellevue and University District succeeded. “Those first few stores were definitely our laboratories,” said Ally. After opening four locations, Scott and Ally felt like they really understood the restaurant’s concept, operations, and customers. Based on that knowledge, they opened stores in a more targeted way. Their next stores were Alderwood, Redmond, and Sammamish, along with a real estate division.
The business that was inspired by their busy family is truly a family affair in more ways than one. They even have pizzas named after all of the boys — and other people who have inspired them — and have a taste for pizza worth sharing. MOD also serves salad, garlic strips, milkshakes, draft beer, and wine. At MOD, one price covers as many toppings as you’d like — and people appreciate it.
Philip White of Ballard was introduced to MOD Pizza by his 12-year-old son and calls MOD Pizza “good pizza with attitude.” He and his family go to MOD once or twice a week. His favorite is the Calexico pizza with jalapeños and grilled chicken. “The people are very engaging,” White said. “I like the atmosphere.”
You’d think starting and growing successful businesses and raising four boys would keep the Svensons’ plates more than full. But getting more involved in the Eastside community — where they met and MOD is headquartered — became increasingly important.
The Svensons co-chaired Hopelink’s annual luncheon, and that nonprofit experience helped put things into perspective. “Ally and I looked at each other and said building just a retail business is not something that’s going to fill our soul for the rest of our professional career,” Scott said. They wanted to take their success and have a positive impact on others.
From that point forward, the Svensons made MOD more about the people than the pizza. Sure, the pizza is critical to their success — and they were thrilled with the quality of their product — but they wanted to give people the opportunity to improve their lives.
“We want to be a role model and a force for good,” Ally added. Part of that was changing the perception of the service industry. The Svensons wanted employees to be proud of their jobs and look forward to going to work. They call their employees MOD Squaders, and they pay them a living wage and are big on offering second chances to people looking for a good job.
Each MOD Squad employee is unique, and has a story to tell. Here’s the story of one member of the MOD Squad: “Today I feel like my life has meaning and purpose, and I want you guys to know that you gave me that. A little over two and a half years ago, when I first came into MOD, I was just trying to figure out how to exist, to simply pay rent, keep food in my stomach, and keep clothes on my back, and you gave me that … I want you to know that my existence has so much more meaning today.”
In addition to helping their staff, they’ve given their employees two ways to help their communities. On each store’s opening day, the store gives 100 percent of its first-day sales to a local nonprofit, selected by employees at that location.
For example, at the Overlake store’s grand opening in July, the MOD Squad donated $3,512 to Jubilee Reach to help with the Highland STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) program. The Redmond Ridge location donated $5,324 to the Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center to provide equine-assisted therapy to children and adults with disabilities. Each year at Thanksgiving, the MOD Squad does a program called Spreading MODness. During Thanksgiving week, MOD donates $1 from each pizza sold in MOD stores across the country. Last year, 31 stores participated, donating nearly $38,000 to community programs. Locally, stores donated to Redmond Hopelink, Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank, and Maple Valley Food Bank and Emergency Services.
“Our real purpose is making a difference in the lives of the people who join us on this journey,” Scott said.
There MOD Pizza locations across the nation. MOD recently announced it also will be available in the United Kingdom soon.