Pie Five CEO: Fast casual pizza category fills a void

Pie Five Pizza Co., sister chain to the 55-year old Pizza Inn, first opened in June 2011. The fast casual concept offers made-to-order, customized individual pizzas baked in less than five minutes.

Recent deals were just signed to expand the Pie Five brand out of its home state of Texas, into markets such as Kansas City, Mo., and Florida. More are on the way, according to Randy Gier, who took over as CEO of parent company Pizza Inn Holdings in November. He described the Pizza Inn and Pie Five brands as "Batman and Robin" in a recent interview with PizzaMarketplace.com.

"As excited as we are about developing Pie Five, we haven't abandoned our focus on Pizza Inn," he said. "We are a pizza company, and we want to get customers more pizza in more ways."

Gier also spoke about Pie Five's specific expansion plans and the relatively new niche of fast casual pizza.

PizzaMarketplace: Why is now the right time to expand Pie Five?

Randy Gier: Pizza is a $40 billion industry. Nobody loves pizza more than Americans. There is never a bad time to expand a pizza concept. We have a couple of years under our belt, and more experience, and we're ready to roll.

We are not committed entirely to franchising, and that's the one thing that makes us different than others in this space. We intend to invest in our own stores alongside franchised stores. I think the dual approach will help us expand more quickly.

PizzaMarketplace: Do you have a set growth goal in place that you'd like to reach this year and beyond?

RG: We're not committing to a number right now. We've been doing pizza since 1958, and growth is part of our mission. But we don't know how big this is going to be yet. Our intention is to be the leading, preeminent fast casual brand in the pizza space. If that means 500 units, great. If that means 1,000, great. We'll let the consumer tell us how much demand there is and build to meet the needs.

PizzaMarketplace: What markets are you targeting specifically?

RG: We have mapped out the top 50 markets in the U.S. as a starting place and prioritized them on a number of different measures — size, scope, fast casual developments, pizza developments. It looks like patchwork now because it's early, but within a few months it will fill out. We will look at areas with consumers who are active, on-the-go. Urban and suburban are working well for us.

PizzaMarketplace: The Chipotles and Paneras have been around for awhile; what took so long for pizza to get in the fast casual space?

RG: I've been scratching my head wondering that same thing. The barrier was the equipment. We've finally found a solution that can create a high quality product fast.

What you're seeing now isn't the first attempt to try and get an individualized, customized and quick pizza. Pizza by the slice has been around for a long time. But it doesn't have the same quality or customization. You can get a personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut, but it's not fast service, so that component is missing. Only recently have we figured out the whole package based on three things — individualized, customized and fast. Pizza is the most popular food in this country, and it's amazing that for these quick occasions, it hasn't been an option before. It's exciting to see it has become an option.

PizzaMarketplace: With so many new fast casual pizza concepts popping up, how will Pie Five differentiate itself?

RG: We have been in the pizza business since 1958. We have a wealth of knowledge from product, consumer, operations, everything. That itself makes us a bit unique. From a consumer standpoint, we have crust variety. No one else is offering pan pizza at this speed. The other very important difference for us is that customers can get their pizza while they're still in line. Everyone else is calling out a number or taking it to a table. Once we get you through the line, you're in control of your dining experience again.

PizzaMarketplace: Do you expect the fast casual space to continue growing as fast as it has in the past year or two?

RG: Yes, it is here to stay. It solves a problem for consumers that hasn't been solved before. Traditionally, people sit down and share a pizza. Everyone agrees to share but not everyone gets what they want. It's also a lengthy process and doesn't really fit well with the fast lifestyles of today. With fast casual, there is room for everyone. It opens up new occasions that haven't been solved by pizza in the past. And there is the ability to have your pizza with your toppings quickly that you don't have to share. You can have a shared dining experience, but you don't have to share your pizza.

PizzaMarketplace: Pie Five has experimented with some interesting creations such as Sweet Thai Pie; does the concept allow you more freedom for unique innovations?

RG: The bulk of our transactions is always going to be people getting the same thing every day. But our whole idea is based on customized, so by creating some culinary variety, it creates interest and possibilities in the mind of the consumer. Pizza is a blank canvas — it is really about creation.

PizzaMarketplace: As you continue to expand the Pie Five brand, how will you market such the fledgling concept to generate interest?

RG: Most of our marketing is digitally based. We're working hard to have an integrated system that allows us to have social, text, rewards and email all working together. We also have a new store marketing plan and will be engaging people about who we are before opening. We have to say who we are on the outside of the building because people have no frame of reference for what we're doing. We will also rely heavily on word of mouth because, frankly, once people come in and experience this, it's a "wow."

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