A battle to be the top-performing "top-your-own" pizza chain has begun. There seems to be five major contenders vying to be the No. 1 "Chipotle of the pizza industry."
Each chain claims its concept is the best in or the first to market, but that's not where the similarities end. They all make their dough and sauce daily in house, offer a variety of crusts and fresh toppings, serve the pizzas in about five minutes and prepare the pizzas in front of the customers.
The No. 1 similarity, however, is that they all have expansion plans.
"This concept is exploding. It's a fantastic idea," said David Rutkauskas, founder and CEO of Beautiful Brands, the restaurant development company behind FreshBerry and Camille's Café and who also represents Top That! Pizza's franchise sales program. "You go down the line and get a choice of crusts, sauces and toppings, and in a few minutes you have a pizza.
Although it's too early to call out a No. 1 leader in the top-your-own pizza market, it seems Top That! Pizza, Mod Pizza, Pie five pizza co., Pie-ology and Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint are the major players. Here's a look at how they got started and how they plan to grow.
Top That! Pizza
Husband and wife team Jeff and Lori Walderich opened the first location nearly 10 months ago in Tulsa, Okla. They converted an old Quizno's into a restaurant that creates personal-sized pizzas in less than 5 minutes, letting customers choose crust, cheese, sauce and toppings.
The concept took off immediately – they already have 30 franchise contracts in place to build locations throughout the nation and in the Middle East.
Getting social: Part of Top That's appeal is its trendy, modern atmosphere that utilizes digital menu boards and social media. The boards serve as attractive menus, but they also provide a way for the restaurant to connect to its customers, who take photos of their pizza creations with their mobile phones, upload them to Facebook and then see them on the screens.
Ally and Scott Swenson launched the first Mod nearly three years ago in Seattle, Wash. The couple returned to their home state after living 10 years in London running a successful coffee franchise. In the early 90s, the couple longed for a Seattle-style latte before the U.K. had caught onto the coffee craze. Tired of missing their caffeine fix, they eventually opened one coffee shop. That quickly turned into 65 locations that they eventually sold to Starbucks to return home.
"We realized that if we wanted it, then others probably did, too, Ally Swenson said.
Although it took the couple four years to finally decide to launch the coffee business, it took a lot less time to see the gap in the market for the top-your-own pizza business.
"I have four boys, and I don't want it to cost $100 to feed them," she said. Plus, they all plays sports and we are on the go, and like most moms, I wanted to feel good about what I was feeding them."
Enter Chipotle: Swenson said the Tex Mex restaurant ended up being a perfect solution to what she was looking for. It was fresh, healthy food at a cheap price point, and it was fast.
"I thought, 'Wow, they've nailed this,'" Swenson said. "I'm happy to eat here. My kids like it. I feel cool eating here.' So, we decided to marry the concept with our love of pizza."
The Swenson's, who consider themselves foodies, love Italian pizza and also the ease of the light, simple street pizzas they often ate in Italy when they lived abroad. They kept that in mind when creating their thin-crust, individual-sized pizzas.
"Consumers are looking for high-quality food, yet cost remains important in this economy," Swenson said.
Mod, which is about to open its fifth store, sells its pizzas for $6.28, no matter how many toppings a customer selects, and chefs make the dough and sauce fresh daily.
The California pizza restaurant was the brainchild of James Markham, who also helped the Swensons launch Mod. He is now working hard to brand Pie-ology as the best top-your-own pizzeria in the market. Although he has only one store open now, two more will be running by the end of the year, and plans are in the works to add 15 to 25 in the next 24 months.
Oven matters: Markham said his open-flame oven sets Pie-ology apart from his competitors. Once the pizza is built, it goes in our open flame oven and cooks at 800 degrees in 2 minutes or less. No other pizza place can do that."
Markham said it took a lot of time and research to find and oven to cook pizzas in under 2 minutes. It also took him several months to reformulate his dough recipe to ensure it cooked evenly without burning in the high-temperature oven.
"And conveyor ovens? Really? That gives the customers no theatre whatsoever, and pizzas done in a conveyor oven don't come close to pizzas cooked on a stone," he said.
Rent-controlled pizza: Each of Pie-ology's 12-inch pizzas cost $7.50. It doesn't matter if the customer chooses a plain cheese pizza or one with a plethora of toppings.
"You get as many toppings as you want," he said. "It's your choice. I think people like to feel like their food is custom just for them."
Pie five pizza co.
Pizza Inn is the force behind Forth Worth, Texas Pie five pizza co. Like Pie-ology and Top That, it has only one operating store but is quickly growing. In fact, CEO Charlie Morrison said he expects to own three to six corporate stores in the next year with a long-term goal of franchising.
"The response has been great from customers," Morrison said. "They get it. They understand it."
The pizza joint is much smaller than the Pizza Inn buffet restaurants – about 1,250 square feet compared to 4,000 square feet – and offers both sit-down and carry-out options.
Pie five features 9-inch custom-made pizzas but also has 10 signature flavors designed by the restaurant's chef.
"Pie five was born out of a desire to find a way to give customer fresh pizza fast," said Morrison, who didn't want consumers looking for a quick pizza fix to have to rely on warming cases often found in gas stations and airports.
"That's not the best way to demonstrate fresh-made pizza," he said. "So this idea was born to solve that problem."
The concept is taking off because customers are all about choice, according to Morrison. "You can see that with the rapid growth in fast casual, and pizza is an area that really hasn't been touched related to fast casual."
Knowing the pizza biz: Morrison, who has been running Pizza Inn since 2007, said he expects competition in the market but is confident that Pie five will come out on top.
"In any segment in the industry you're gonna have competition in anything you do," he said. "What differentiates us is (Pizza Inn's) history. We have 50 years in the business and have perfected the product."
That experience, Morrison said, also gives Pie five an advantage with marketing, plus the company already has a supply chain in place.
Like its competitors, Uncle Maddio's specializes in fast, fresh pizzas, giving customers the power to choose their own toppings, crust, sauce and cheese. Chefs make the pizzas in front of the customers but also prepare the sauce and dough daily in-house. Prices range from $6.49 for a 9-inch personal pizza with three toppings to $17.49 for a 16-inch extra large signature pizza. The restaurants also serve a lot of healthy options, including free-range, hormone-free grilled chicken and angus steak, whole wheat dough, gluten-free crust, vegan Daiya cheese and local fresh vegetables.
Growing fast: Matt Andrew, a founder of Moe's Southwest Grill, launched the first location in 2009, in Atlanta, Georgia, and is now developing 50 more throughout, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Kentucky. Andrew's plan is to have an additional 50 units in development by the end of 2011.
Dick Renneck, CEO of Team Renneck, a consultant company for franchise restaurants, expects a plethora of similar concepts to soon enter the market – it's too good of an idea for people to pass up.
"I believe that the reason for this growth is that people are looking to live the American dream of having their own business, and some want to do it on their own and build their own empire," he said. "This is a great way to do it."
Swenson isn't worried about new startups or existing competition.
"I think there's room in the market for a lot of us," she said. "And, if anything, it just validates the need for our concept."
Click here to see a slideshow of some of the new pizza concepts.
Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.