The growth of the fast casual pizza category is staggering and many young concepts have aspirations to quickly surpass the 100-unit mark.
One of those brands is Atlanta-based Your Pie. First opened in 2008 by founder Drew French, Your Pie has grown to 18 locations and recently announced a partnership with Georgia Oak Partners to spur further expansion.
The company's plan is to reach 100 units by 2015. As part of that strategy, Ken Caldwell was recently named VP of Development. Previously, Caldwell led start-up concept Heavenly Ham from 10 units to 230. He then helped HoneyBaked Ham dive head first into franchising, and led that company's growth from 35 units to 180. PizzaMarketplace.com had the chance to talk to Caldwell recently about the fast casual pizza trend and Your Pie's differentiators in an increasingly crowded space.
PizzaMarketplace.com: Why did you take a risk and join a young company in a young subsegment of pizza?
Ken Caldwell: There is always a risk with everything. I've been in franchising for 20 years. Part of my personal thrill is to take emerging brands and grow them. As a customer, I saw what Your Pie was doing and I loved the quality of the product and the emerging category and Your Pie's place in it.
PizzaMarketplace.com: What has the learning curve been like for you getting into the pizza space?
KC: I am new to pizza and there is some difference in the day-to-day operation. But we believe pizza is about as simple as restaurant operations can be. Yes, there is training involved, but we feel that we can teach anybody how to operate a pizza store. The key, though, is to find people who can run a business profitably. We can teach operations, but we need to make sure we teach unit level economics.
PizzaMarketplace.com: As the top-your-own category grows, what is Your Pie's differentiator?
KC: Our primary focus is offering the ability for customers to create their own pizzas. But we also do salads, Panini, craft beer, gelato. We encourage our franchisees to develop relationships with local beer distributors in their markets, and craft beer lovers appreciate that. And, a differentiator is the brick oven, which brings a fantastic flavor to the pizza — a crispy, light flavor. We also use the oven to bake bread for our Panini, so our advantage is in the quality of the product. The brick oven is our focal point.
PizzaMarketplace.com: Does a brick oven slow down speed of service, compared to a concept that uses a high-tech conveyor oven?
KC: From an operations perspective, we believe a brick oven can cook pizza as fast as a conveyor oven and has other advantages. We hand-toss our dough, whereas a lot of competitors hand-press their dough ahead of time. It creates an operational efficiency for them, but we don't take the 'time perspective.' We take the freshness and flavor perspective. We can hand toss our dough, let our customers choose their toppings, bake the pizza and still have it to them in 7 to 10 minutes.
PizzaMarketplace.com: What is your vision for growth and the pace you hope to follow?
KC: We want to grow for sure. But we don't want to grow for growth's sake. The key to us is to choose the right partners for growth. That can be either a multiunit operator or single-store mom and pop operator, as long as they're committed to quality and maintain the values of our brand, and they work hard and represent our brand well.
PizzaMarketplace.com: What changes or tweaks have been made to Your Pie's strategy since it began in 2008?
KC: The first store made it through the recession, which is a testament to Drew's (French) vision. He basically started a new brand in a new category in the worst economic period in 50 years. The idea was to build models so it could be profitable enough to make it. He persevered and adjusted and brought in help, including my role and Bucky Cook (CEO), and from an equity perspective, Georgia Oak Partners. We're always trying to learn and take a more targeted approach.
PizzaMarketplace.com: What are your priority markets for growth?
KC: We are currently in the Southeast and we want to grow outwardly from there. We're looking at Charleston (S.C.), Charlotte (N.C.), Nashville (Tenn.), Atlanta, Birmingham (Ala.) and Tampa (Fla.). This is Phase I. We don't want to outshine our headlights.
PizzaMarketplace.com: Why is the top-your-own pizza category growing so quickly, in your opinion?
KC: Everybody loves pizza. So when a new way to eat it is created, people are going to be interested. In the past, you'd have a family of four argue over whether or not to put mushrooms on the pizza, or extra cheese. Now, you can individualize it anyway you want, and make it as healthy or unhealthy as you want. I do think it's as simple as that.
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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.