Create-your-own pizza concepts are quickly becoming commonplace in the young fast casual segment, which has traditionally been known more for "better burgers" and "fresh Mex" cuisine.
While these concepts seem to be springing up all over the country, Drew French claims he was one of the first to market the build-your-own pizza business six years ago when he opened the first Your Pie in Georgia.
Your Pie allows customers to tell pizza chefs whether they want white, wheat or gluten-free dough and then pick from eight sauces ranging from Ischia-inspired marinara, basil pesto or the chain's secret recipe BBQ sauce. They finally choose among eight cheeses and more than 40 fresh vegetables and premium meats, such as Italian sausage and bacon.
"We then finish it in our brick oven so it gets kissed by the flame," French said. "They cook in a brick oven at very high temperatures, so it only takes 3 to 5 minutes to cook a pizza depending on how many toppings a customer chooses."
Your Pie now has 18 units, but French is on a mission to grow even bigger. He chatted with PizzaMarketplace's sister site FastCasual.com about his plans to make his pizza chain a national brand in the next two to five years and a global player within 10 years.
|Drew French tosses dough at Your Pie.
Q: What makes your fast casual pizza concept different from the others?
French: One, we were the inventors of the concept, so our passion and understanding of the niche is unique. We also hand-toss your dough to order, which not only gives you the best tasting product, but provides a kind of atmosphere that you can't find in many restaurants, let alone a fast casual one. The other concepts entering the space have chosen a dough press or conveyor oven for their customers. You just can't match our quality with those applications. Our passion for our product offering is inspired by the Italian culture that my wife's family, from the island of Ischia off the coast of Naples, has instilled in us. That's why we serve gelato in addition to our Italian style pizza, Panini, and bread bowl salads along with craft beer and wine.
Our name, Your Pie, is what makes us unique as well. Most of the decisions we make in terms of product offerings come from our customers. We solicit ingredient pairings and we listen to our customers. There are multiple pizzas on our menu that the customer came up with. Our customers are what make what we do fun, so the fact that they are helping us drive where we go is exciting.
Q: Why do you think pizza is gaining popularity in the fast casual market?
French: I equate what we are doing to what is happening in the craft beer market. The parallels are mind boggling to me. I think that Americans are tired of the companies with unlimited marketing budgets telling them what they should eat and drink. The passion that craft brewers put into their beers is similar to the passion that our chefs and customers are putting into each of their pizzas that they get to create. We are not a big pizza company trying to push a $10-any pizza into every home. Our customers take pride in the choice we have provided to them, and so do our team members.
Consumers are becoming very sophisticated when it comes to what we put in our bodies, and marketing campaigns only work until you taste the product. The craft pizza niche is gaining popularity because we are able to provide a better quality pizza, and let you be the driving force behind that better pizza. Sure we give you pairing suggestions, and explain the background to Italian-inspired pizzas in order to assist you in how to create that better pizza, but I am amazed every day at the combinations our customers come up with. Have you ever tried chipotle pesto mixed with ranchy marinara?
Couple that with the fact that you don't have to compromise anymore. A family of four can come to Your Pie and each get what they want. Mom finally gets her pesto chicken pizza with roasted red peppers and feta. Dad gets anchovies! Timmy gets corn, and Maggie with a gluten allergy can come get a great tasting pizza for the first time in years. We have been force fed our whole lives to settle for half cheese and half pepperoni. Now we force you to get what you want. It's a simple idea, and our customers love us for it.
Q: How do you ensure a "high quality" product if you're cooking pizzas so fast?
French: If you look at where pizza came from originally, they used brick ovens cooking at extremely high temperatures. Speed doesn't always mean lower quality. The best pizza in the world is cooked on the oven we are using, whether it's in a fast casual atmosphere like Your Pie, or a white table cloth restaurant charging $25 per pie. That is what I love about what we are doing. We are able to serve the best tasting pizza in the world at a price point that everyone can enjoy. We will never have to sacrifice quality for our customers, which really excites me about what we are doing.
Q: How do you work with your franchisees to ensure success?
French: I have worked for franchise companies that were more interested in their bottom line than their franchisees' bottom line. When I founded Your Pie I vowed never to take that approach. I have never grown without feeling 100 percent confident that our support structure was in place for our system. Since day one, we have invested in infrastructure that we couldn't afford in preparation for growth. I believe, and I know for a fact, that if our franchisees are successful, then Your Pie will be successful. It cannot, and will not work in the reverse order.
In addition, our culture was founded on innovation, so we are constantly raising the bar on ourselves. We know that we will be the best in quality and service, because we are always going to improve our systems for our customers and for our team members. We are not waiting to see what everyone else is up to because we are the trailblazers. We ask for new ideas, and we embrace it when our franchisees push us to be better. By staying true to our culture, we will be able to ensure long-term success for our franchisees.
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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.