The topic du jour in the pizza segment – and the fast casual segment, for that matter – is build-your-own pizza concepts. With capital starting to pour in a little more steadily, these brands are growing aggressively throughout the country and are billing themselves as 'the next big thing.'
We’ve kept a firm pulse on this trend from the beginning – in 2011, we even asked who will be the “Chipotle of pizza." While there are many differences between these emerging concepts, one characteristic they all share is the “chute queue” in which customers walk the line, pick their toppings and wait just a short time for their finalized product.
In our hometown of Louisville, Ky., Papa John’s and Yum! Brands – Pizza Hut’s parent – reign supreme. Time will tell if one of these up-and-comers can viably compete in the shadows of these two giants’ headquarters, but Uncle Maddio’s has made a solid run for share here since 2011, and last week we caught a glimpse of Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza prior to today’s grand opening. We had the chance to talk to Wayne Albritton, president of franchisee the Millennial Restaurant Group, about why he thinks the California-based Blaze will appeal to the Derby City and, eventually, the entire country.
PizzaMarketplace.com: What is your restaurant industry background?
Wayne Albritton: We had a number of Wendy’s for many, many years. We also had Rally’s. Now this (Blaze) is my only concept.
PizzaMarketplace: Why did you decide to add this specific type of concept to your portfolio after all of those years in the hamburger business?
WA: We looked at many other options in quick casual and we just didn’t find anything that stuck out or that was really franchise-able. When we researched this, we were excited about it because it offered a different twist to pizza – it was quick, it offered freshness and choices. We cook with fire, etc. There was a lot that stood out to me.
PizzaMarketplace: There are many fast casual, top-your-own pizza brands growing aggressively. Why did Blaze specifically stand out?
WA: To me, Blaze is the most buttoned up. The systems and the franchising is in place. It is run by professionals in the industry (Blaze was founded by Elise and Rick Wetzel, co-founders of Wetzel's Pretzels). It was just a complete package.
That’s not to mention the menu – developed by Brad Kent (who has been recognized by Zagat) , the décor is edgy, the atmosphere is friendly and fun. And the entire segment is appealing. Americans love their pizza and the fact that this is different, they can make what they want and get it quickly, is appealing.
PizzaMarketplace: Because of the speed and location (an end-cap location in a busy retail area) are you going after the lunch crowd?
WA: Yes and especially Millennials. When we first started training our employees, who are all younger, the first thing we did was introduce them to the pizza. Almost all of them got build-your-own and all of them were different. That showed we were hitting on something that Millennials get and that they want – fast, customized pizza.
PizzaMarketplace: How are you introducing Louisville to the brand, considering the city's history with traditional delivery brands?
WA: Getting people in here to experience the pizza is our first goal because we know they’ll love it and come back. We hired a PR firm and we’re doing a lot with social and tracking Yelp, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We’re doing a lot of interactive marketing. We’re not trying to be traditional with our marketing approach because Millennials are our target audience.
PizzaMarketplace: With so many emerging top-your-own pizza brands, do you predict a bubble of sorts?
WA: I think it will be like any other segment – there will be a few national players, a little bit more regional players and even more local players. I think we’ll see a lot of regionals. I think we will be a national brand.
PizzaMarketplace: How does Blaze differentiate itself from the others?
WA: Every one of them has their strengths. For us it’s about getting to the market early and setting high standards. Also, we have fresh dough made every day in our restaurants; we have fresh ingredients and our sauce is made in-store; we cook with fire whereas many of these concepts use a conveyor; and we will be well-staffed always.
PizzaMarketplace: Describe your idea of ‘well-staffed’ and how will you manage that if wages rise?
WA: A minimum wage increase will happen and we will just manage it like we manage everything else. That’s what you have to do when you run a business. But I would rather be overstaffed – within reason – than understaffed because I want to make sure our guests know they are going to be taken care of no matter what. A good experience is the most important thing we can give them.
Details of the new Louisville Blaze
The new Blaze is located in a 2,300-square foot end-cap location near both shopping malls in the St. Matthews area of Louisville, Ky. It shares a busy parking lot with the likes of Trader Joe’s, Penn Station, Nordstrom Rack and numerous other retailers. The space is bright – with large windows and a loft ceiling – and it is modern, with industrial accents complemented by warm wood elements.
This unit offers an assortment of wines and local Kentucky beers. There are three sauces to choose from, including a spicy red sauce, featuring jalapenos, cayenne pepper and roasted garlic. There are also eight cheeses, including a vegan cheese, and a gluten-free crust option. The pizzas are fired in a Wood Stone oven and customers can watch their pizzas being cooked in about 3 minutes before they’re delivered to the table.
To mark the grand opening, on Tuesday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., customers can receive a free build-your-own pizza from Blaze if they follow the brand on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.