CEO: Pie Five will 'change the way people think of pizza'

Texas-based Pizza Inn opened a new concept one year ago in Fort Worth that promised high-quality pizzas with diverse ingredients in about 3 minutes.

Pie Five Pizza Co. now includes six units, with a seventh set to open in August on the University of Texas-Arlington campus. The fledgling brand has benefited from its fast casual model that allows customers to choose their own toppings while walking through a Chipotle-like line queue.

Both Pizza Inn and Pie Five Pizza Co. fall under the newly created Pizza Inn Holdings Inc., led by CEO Charlie Morrison. PizzaMarketplace.com spoke to Morrison about the new brand's progress in the past year, how it is able to leverage its relationship with the 54-year-old Pizza Inn, and what customers can expect next.

 

PizzaMarketplace.com: Where did the idea come from to create a separate brand?

Charlie Morrison: It came from a number of different angles. I've always been a proponent of making fresh pizza fast for the customer, and the growth of the fast casual segment is certainly a driver behind that idea. When we looked at fast casual then, however, it had sandwiches, burritos, salads, but there was really nothing behind pizza, so we wanted to execute that.

We found that consumers struggled with the idea of a pizza chain having a separate look and feel, so we decided to change the branding.

PizzaMarketplace.com: What steps toward executing were taken first?

Charlie Morrison: The catalyst that really drove this was the technology of the oven. Ovens are getting faster. We use TurboChef and I believe they've been an innovator in finding ways to get things baked faster. This equipment has a belt width of 21 inches and it doesn't require hood ventilation, which was a big deal in the spaces we were considering. We found what we were looking for – the ability to assemble pizzas, drop it in an oven and have it to the customer in 2 to 2 ½ minutes.

PizzaMarketplace.com: What were some of the early challenges?

Charlie Morrison: Coming up with a new brand entirely meant we had to walk away from the legacy and history and all the positive credibility that comes from Pizza Inn. That was tough, but it allowed us to leverage a higher price point and play with unique toppings and offerings.

We also had to communicate to our existing franchisees that we weren't going to infringe on their territory.

PizzaMarketplace.com: How do you avoid cannibalizing existing Pizza Inn units?

Charlie Morrison: Pizza Inn is dominant in smaller markets – towns of 100,000 people or less. It only exists in a few major markets, like Dallas and Houston. Pie Five is centered on major markets, so where we're not penetrated now is where we're focused. Plus, Pie Five is a completely different customer set – it skews younger, higher income, more educated. Pizza Inn is more Middle America and it feeds on the value-conscious customer. Two different customers eat at these two different restaurants. We see the Pie Five brand complementing Pizza Inn.

PizzaMarketplace.com: What do your expansion plans entail?

Charlie Morrison: We have started offering the concept to franchise prospects and hope to get a deal signed soon. We want to open four to five restaurants a quarter. There are people who say "go faster," but we don't want to go too fast too early. We need to make sure we are making the best decisions on real estate, which will yield more productive restaurants. We also plan on looking at and have had discussions about nontraditional locations, such as airports and campuses.

PizzaMarketplace.com: How has being a part of the fast-growing fast casual segment helped with Pie Five's growth, if at all?

Charlie Morrison: Fast casual is what consumers want and demand now; they want to be in control of the occasion more than in the past, and they want freshness, quality and to actually see their product getting made, which has high attribute scores. As it comes to pizza, I think we're well positioned and driving the niche.

PizzaMarketplace.com: Will you leverage the Pizza Inn brand moving forward or function as completely autonomous entities?

Charlie Morrison: Even though we restructured this past year (into Pizza Inn Holdings Inc.), and operate the two as distinct businesses with separate management, operations, etc., we will still leverage some commonalities, like our legal, culinary and marketing teams. Pie Five has been able to grow and benefit from the team and history of Pizza Inn, and the opposite has happened too. For example, Pizza Inn's new Spicy Sicilian Pizzas were born from a menu idea at Pie Five.

PizzaMarketplace.com: What is your marketing strategy to get consumers acquainted with the brand?

Charlie Morrison: One of our biggest benefits will be getting more restaurants in place. Our word-of-mouth marketing has been really successful in raising awareness. Our most recent opening has been our most successful and that's a good sign for the business. We have done pre-opening celebrations with free samples, which stimulates the market. We've also done direct male and broad-based advertising to start. Long term, we'll use strategically placed billboards and, of course, we'll take advantage of social media.

PizzaMarketplace.com: How does Pie Five differentiate itself from other top-your-own concepts and pizza chains?

Charlie Morrison: It is an opportunity to take pizza to a different level with the customer who wants more out of their pizza. This will change the way people think of pizza because it allows them to enjoy it the way they want it, and fast. There is no longer a negotiation with the family or a group.

PizzaMarketplace.com: Now that Pie Five has been in business for a year, are there any changes you'd make?

Charlie Morrison: I am pleased to say where we started is where we are today. We're still learning and tweaking small things, but we are absolutely where we thought we'd be. I'm very proud of this concept. I feel like we've created a leadership position in this segment.

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