Ones to watch
Ever since fast casual cut its own segment from the general industry 15 years ago, it has sliced itself into multiple subcategories (e.g., bakery-café, hamburger, deli, etc.) And, save for Fazoli's, almost no one has moved to create an Italian subsegment, unless you credit fast-casual pizza as "going Italian."
 
In somewhat reverse fashion, fast-casual pizza chains such as RedBrick, zpizza and Me-n-Ed's came first with pizza and continually added Italian-style items to their menus.
 
It remains to be seen whether pizza will enjoy the enormous market share in fast casual that it does in quick-service. But given fast casual's youth as a segment and its relatively small size, the field is wide open for pizza to have a tremendous impact, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic Information Services.
 
"Fast-casual Italian is really trying to hit its stride," Tristano said. "Nobody owns that space yet. It's waiting for someone to take command."
 
By way of pizza?
 
"Absolutely," Tristano said. "Italian, it seems, is an American favorite in terms of food. And with the introduction of more salads and sandwiches, it promotes a healthier feeling and eliminates veto votes. There's just a lot of potential there."
 
With Tristano's thoughts in mind, Fast Casual took a look at who's jockeying for the pizza leadership position. The criteria for who's leading or who's an up-and-comer are centered on some or all of the following characteristics: brick ovens (gas or wood-fired); pizzas with gourmet or exotic toppings; more-healthful-than-usual offerings; broader menus (e.g., substantial salads and sandwiches, as well as unique alcoholic beverages); and snazzy facilities. Here are several we think fit some or all of those criteria and make themselves chains to watch.
 
Segment Leaders
 
Red Brick Pizza (Palmdale, Calif.) and zpizza (Newport Beach, Calif.)
At about 70 units each, RedBrick Pizza and zpizza are the largest fast-casual pizza chains, but both want a larger slice of the market. RedBrick chief executive officer Jim Minidis believes his chain can become Pizza Hut-sized at 12,000 units, while zpizza's leadership wants a modest 200 stores within the next few years.
 
Both chains have solid systems serving high-quality pies, and each appeals to that key Generation Y (25 to 35 years old) demographic that wants pizza — the good stuff, not $5.99 large cheese deals — and will pay for it.
 
Tristano's take: "RedBrick believed it could grow nationally based on a fresh product and getting it through the ovens in a few minutes. Where some chains grow only regionally based on regional tastes, RedBrick is showing it can grow nationally with a little bit different strategy."
 
The 'Quiet Grower': Me-n-Ed's Pizzeria, Fresno, Calif.
Since opening in 1961, Me-n-Ed's patiently has built a solid reputation on its brick-oven pizza and its easy-to-remember, though grammatically nightmarish, name. At last count, Me-n-Ed's was a few units shy of 60, but tweaking its concept to include a foot-traffic-focused spin-off dubbed Me-n-Ed's Slices.
 
Me-n-Ed's skillfully blends a fast-casual service model with a wide menu of pizzas, calzones, pastas and a salad bar. Except for a handful of stores in Canada, all are California-based, reflecting the chain's regional appeal.
 
Tristano's take: "It seems like New York and California have the highest expectations for freshness in restaurant products, and I think that says a lot about what Me-n-Ed's has done."
 
Up-and-Comers
 
Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, Charlotte, N.C.
Employing measured growth over its nine-year life span, Brixx has opened nine locations within 150 miles of its home base. The chain sells a mouthwatering combination of top-quality wood-fired pizza and 24 draft beers (mostly microbrews and imports) and garners customer loyalty through its beer clubs.
 
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Brixx does franchise, but its pickiness about quality makes it persnickety about franchisees.
 
Tristano's take: "Brixx appears to have been able to position itself as a local joint without feeling like a chain. They have this whole MBA thing (Masters of Beer Appreciation) that rewards you for drinking all their beers. It gives the customer a very fun feel and turns their places into an adult hangout."
 
Puccini's Smiling Teeth Pizza, Indianapolis
Like Brixx, Puccini's is a slow grower, amassing just 12 units in 16 years. But along the way, the chain has developed an eye-popping array of pizza, pasta, salad and calzone options that belie its fast-casual position while meeting the desires of its value-minded Midwestern customer base.
 
San Francisco Oven, Cleveland
San Francisco Oven, which boasts 15 units, is definitely about gourmet, brick-oven pizza, but despite being headquartered in Cleveland, the menu leans toward California flavors. Sandwiches are built on focaccia and garnished with avocado, and the headliner soup is a Pier 39 Clam Chowder — definitely not a pizza joint standard.
 
Tristano's take: "They also have take-and-bake pizzas and calzones, and they sell branded Fog City coffee, which is a great touch."
 
Ones to Watch
 
The Loop Pizza Grill, Jacksonville, Fla.
Its broader-than-pizza menu makes it a bit of an outsider in this group, but The Loop Pizza Grill is definitely a chain to watch in fast casual. It, too, has been an arguably slow grower over its quarter-century life, but its owners' insistence on premium quality at a fair price has kept the reins tight until a "franchise-able" formula was worked out three years ago.
 
Go Roma Italian Kitchen, Chicago
Under the leadership of a pair of Lettuce Entertain You veterans, Go Roma has grown to eight units in less than three years. Artisan pizzas share menu space with fried calamari and unique salads to give the chain a cosmopolitan feel.

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