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The fast casual pizzeria craze shows no signs of ebbing. Over the past 10 years, several upstart competitors to the major pizza chains — Domino's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut — have surfaced hoping to meet the demands customers wanting something different.
That "different" is artisanal ingredients, hand-crafted pizza-making techniques, a unique atmosphere, a craft beer selection and a customized pizza cooked in minutes. Throw in great service at an affordable price, and customers have a choice between a fast casual pizza experience and one of the big guys. The question for pizza fans, however, is how to choose a fast casual favorite with so many players in the game?
PizzaMarketplace.com talked with six fast casual pizza operators of varying sizes to find out why they do what they do and what sets them apart from other chains in the industry.
&pizza — Michael Lastoria, CEO and co-founder
Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
Number of locations: 14, all company-owned
Number or employees: 300+
What sets &pizza apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"&pizza is a unique brand that is design-driven and community based," said Michael Astoria, &pizza CEO and co-founder. "In 2012, &pizza set out to create a different kind of pizza concept with the following ethos: to celebrate oneness, make it personal, keep it fresh and elevate everything, and that's exactly what they did."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about &pizza?
"&pizza is not just a pizza shop but part of the urban fabric of the community; from the way that they refer to their employees as tribe members to their charitable arm, &CHARITY, to the localized design of the stores, the brand embodies the communities in which they serve," Astoria said. "Across the past four years, &pizza has taken the D.C. fast casual market by storm. With record-breaking growth, this pizza concept represents the next generation of dining."
Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza — Jim Mizes, COO and president
Headquarters: Pasadena, California
Number of locations: 117 locations in 27 states and Canada; five are company-owned and 112 are franchised
Number of employees: Approximately 4,500 system-wide; Blaze Pizza LLC has approximately 250 employees
What sets Blaze Pizza apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"Great brands stand apart by creating an emotional connection with their guests," said Jim Mizes, Blaze Pizza president and COO. "From the beginning, Blaze Pizza has focused on connecting to guests through:
Our chef driven culture focused on quality ingredients, free of artificial colors, additives, flavors or preservatives, with dough made fresh every day. You can taste the difference.
Our people and service that is friendly and fast and focused on meeting the guest's needs.
Our décor and design that is hip, inviting and comfortable supported by music that resonates with Millennials.
"Other companies may be able to offer fast casual pizza, but no one can deliver the entire experience through people and execution like Blaze Pizza."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about Blaze Pizza?
"We are the fastest-growing food service concept in history, Mizes said. "We've gone from two to 117 restaurants in 33 months. Blaze leads the category in AUV's, restaurant count, states, great franchisees, guest satisfaction, etc. We aim to be the fifth-largest pizza provider over the next five years."
Blaze Pizza has been named the overall fastest growing U.S. restaurant chain in the 2016 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
MOD Pizza — Scott Svenson, CEO and co-founder
Headquarters: Seattle, Washington
Number of locations: 110 locations in 16 states; 95 are company-owned and 15 are franshised
Number of employees: 2,200
What sets MOD Pizza apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"MOD was the pioneer of this exciting new category, having opened our first store seven years ago, in November 2008," said Scott Svenson, CEO and co-founder. "With strong executive leadership, an all-star group of board members and advisors, a predominantly company-owned store base and a strong balance sheet, MOD is well-positioned to emerge as the leader in the hot category of fast casual pizza. MOD is a primarily company-owned concept, with a small number of highly experienced and successful franchise partners."
"MOD is a culture-centric company — building a strong business by putting our people first," Svenson added. "By ensuring that our people are taken care of first, we believe that they will consistently deliver an outstanding experience and will be inspired to do good at work, at home and in their communities. It's spreading MODness — the ripple effect of doing the right thing."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about MOD?
"We are amidst a period of rapid sustained growth and will double our store base to 200+ locations in 2016," Svenson said. "We will open our first stores in the U.K. this summer through a joint venture with one of the U.K.'s most successful entrepreneurs, Sir Charles Dunstone."
"Culture is key to MOD's success," Svenson continued. " 'Fortune' Magazine ranked MOD the seventh-best place to work on its '20 Best Workplaces in Retail' list. MOD was recognized as a '2015 Large Private Employer of the Year' by the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues. MOD is committed to using its business to make a difference in our local communities — donating locally with every store opening and through our annual Spreading MODness campaign. To date, MOD has donated nearly half a million dollars. In September 2015, Harvard Business School released a case study on MOD — 'MOD Pizza: A Winning Recipe' — focusing on the company's unique culture and its effect on the brand's growth and success. The case is now being studied at Harvard and other business schools across the U.S."
Pie Five Pizza Co. — Randy Gier, CEO (aka "chief eating officer) of RAVE Restaurant Group Inc
Headquarters: Dallas, Texas
Number of locations: 87 locations in 24 states and the District of Columbia; 36 are company-owned and 51 are franchised
Number of employees: 776
What sets Pie Five apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"Pie Five offers four different crusts and unlimited toppings at one low price," said Jami Zimmerman, director of corporate communications, RAVE Restaurant Group Inc. "Our pizzas cook in only 140 seconds, which is up to 20 seconds faster than the other guys. Imagine the things you could do with that spare 20 seconds – write a funny Tweet, take a selfie or even send your mom an 'I love you' text.'"
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about Pie Five?
"If you couldn't tell already, we don't take ourselves too seriously," Zimmerman said. "However, we do take our pizza seriously, and we invite guests to stop in and see how seriously good we really are! We are all about choosing what you want to chew and you being you."
Pieology Pizzeria — Carl Chang, CEO and founder
Headquarters: Rancho Santa Margarita, California
Number of locations: 86 locations in 14 states; 17 are company-owned and 69 are franchised
Number of employees: 545
What sets Pieology Pizzeria apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"Pieology was founded in 2011, from the simple idea to turn America's most crave-able food into an affordable and interactive experience for everyone," said Carl Chang, Pieology CEO and founder. "Since day one, I've made sure that Pieology has had a heavy focus on proprietary recipe development and menu innovation and we're frequently introducing new flavors, toppings, and signature options to our menu. For example, Pieology recently introduced a new customizable salad program which offers guests a new customizable experience. Also, Pieology caters to dietary restrictions and lifestyle choices with the availability of gluten-free or whole wheat crust, and Daiya vegan mozzarella cheese."
"With close to 90 restaurants nationwide, Pieology is on schedule to open an additional 120 locations by the end of 2016, with commitments for 600 restaurants," Chang added. "While most competitors are focused on rapid expansion, Pieology is committed to choosing experienced multi-unit franchise partners who embrace the company's vision, are devoted to the communities they serve and have a proven track record of franchise success. The company is also dedicated to the expansion of its corporate stores, a strategic approach that positions Pieology for steady, long term growth. Despite how fast or large the chain grows, I want to make sure the company will always have skin in the game to utilize corporate locations as test stores and share best practices with franchisees."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about Pieology Pizzeria?
"We were recently named the #1 Fastest Growing Chain by Technomic, and we're steadily expanding our U.S. footprint, with commitments throughout the country in various stages of development," Chang said. "I was proud to recently announce the strategic investment from Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of Panda Restaurant Group (PRG), one of America's largest and most successful family-owned restaurant companies, with close to 1,900 locations globally. With access to PRG's unlimited resources from real estate to vendor relations and buying power, Pieology is poised to grow even stronger and more efficiently as an organization while continuing to cement its position as the leader in the custom pizza segment."
PizzaRev — Nicholas Eckerman, president and COO
Headquarters: Westlake Village, California
Number of locations: 33 in nine states; 19 are company-owned and 14 are franchised
Number of employees: 800
What sets PizzaRev apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"Our dedication to a fully customized dining experience — most specifically, our 'Rev It Up' counter where guests can choose from a variety of ingredients to put the finishing touches on their custom, personal pizzas," said Nicholas Eckerman, president and COO. "Last summer, we unveiled six custom hot sauces. This is a tremendous differentiator for PizzaRev among the fast-casual pizza segment and guests have been vocal about their favorites among the custom hot sauces. Our Coke Freestyle machines, with more than 100 different drink options and endless combinations, also add to our fully customized dining experience.
"Our commitment to ingredient elevation," Eckerman added. "Our restaurants opened with home-made dough, organic red sauce, vegan and gluten-free options. But we continuously look to elevate our ingredient offerings. Most recently we introduced a gluten-free, all-natural meatball made from beef raised without antibiotic and hormones, all-natural hormone-free chicken and locally sourced produce, when available.
"Our partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings," Eckerman continued. "This is a game changer and truly sets us apart in this space – access to their knowledge and best practices in the restaurant industry is invaluable. We benefit from their economies of scale and they support our commitment to sourcing better ingredients and building out beautiful restaurants."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about PizzaRev?
"Through a commitment to revolutionary ideas and innovation, PizzaRev is changing the way people think about pizza in each community it serves," Eckerman said. "We continue to push the envelope with cleaner ingredients and a fully customized dining experience and we look to partner with vendors and brands who share our passion for innovation."
Uncle Maddio's Pizza — Matt Andrew, founder and CEO
Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia
Number of locations: 45 in 15 states; 2 are company-owend and 43 are franchised
Number of employees: 1,250
What sets Uncle Maddio's apart from other fast casual pizza restaurants?
"Uncle Maddio's is the only true New York style pizza," said Scott Goodrich, Uncle Maddio's COO. "Our competitors are manly, if not exclusively, Neapolitan style pizza. In the spirit of New York style pizza, we offer different size pizzas — small, personal, medium and extra large. Our competitors offer one size — personal. Uncle Maddio's offers fresh build-your-own salads. Our competitors offer premade and prepackaged salads. We have developed a new craft sandwich line called Foldwich, using our made-from-scratch pizza dough stretched thin and baked in our ovens. All of these menu options provide additional revenue streams and our unique ablitiy to cater. We have the largest throughput in the industry with the ablity to cook and deliver 200 pizzas an hour."
"Our new online ordering option is a key step in boosting sales and building new revenue streams," Goodrich added. "With our online ordering, high-speed ovens and high pizza throughput, we have a competitive advantage over other fast casual pizza restaurants."
What do you want the rest of the industry to know about Uncle Maddio's?
"We are committed to taste and quality, delivered fast," Goodrich said. "Customers now have the permission to have healthy, fresh build-your-own pizza for lunch. We cook made-to-order pizza in just 6 minutes."
"Uncle Maddio's success is based on three pillars: our 'served with love' culture, which applies to everything we do from serving guests, franchisees and the community; the quality of our menu and our handcrafted, chef-inspired pizzas; and the speed at which our pizzas are prepared," said Matt Andrew, founder and CEO of Uncle Maddio's. "We offer more variety than any of the pizza concepts with four sizes (great for catering) and three types of crust, including gluten-free, and 48 toppings. Most of the toppings are fresh or made fresh daily in our restaurants. We have a simple operating process that is easy to execute, and we provide our franchisees with world-class support."
Travis Wagoner / Travis Wagoner is editor of DigitalSignageToday.com. He spent nearly 18 years in education as an alumni relations and communications director, coordinating numerous annual events and writing, editing and producing a quarterly, 72-plus-page magazine. Travis also was a ghostwriter for an insurance firm, writing about the Affordable Care Act. He holds a BA degree in communications/public relations from Xavier University.