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Beyond Delivery and DiGiorno: Why Fast-Casual Pizza Is So Hot

From LA to Boulder to NYC, restaurateurs across the country want a slice of the pie

Food at recently opened Martina in NYC
Jean Schwarzwalder

In 1984, Tom Monaghan realized his clientele had a need for speed. In a foolhardy claim, the co-founder of Domino’s Pizza promised that his delivery drivers could get hot, cheesy pies from its stores to customers’ doors in less than 30 minutes — he even slapped a money-back guarantee on it.

Although the 30-minute delivery pledge was discontinued by 1993, over the past decade, new pizza franchises and standalone stores have made similar claims. The new guard promises to serve pizza made with high-quality, organic ingredients at the jaw-dropping speeds of delivery pizza. The catch is that now, while customers can get their pie from dough to plate in five minutes or less, they’ll be seated at a table in the restaurant, not on the couch at home.

While fast-casual pizza is still a relatively young concept, affordable, in-dining pizzerias are slowly edging into Domino’s territory. West Coast-based chains like Blaze and MOD Pizza churn out hundreds of affordable, personal-sized pies for lunch and dinner crowds at their stores across the nation. Orange County-based Pieology and Dallas-based Pie Five, among others, are all looking to, well, claim a piece of the pie. Meanwhile, upstarts like New York City’s Martina, part of the same group that runs Shake Shack, are fusing fine-dining elements into the fast-casual pizza industry.

According to experts monitoring the fast-casual restaurant industry, pizza enjoys the lion’s share of the fast-casual restaurant market. Heather Lalley, an editor at Restaurant Business, says that although overall growth in the fast-casual restaurant sector declined, possibly due to the health scares plaguing Chipotle, the industry grew by 8.1 percent in 2016. Of that, pizza is currently the largest sector at 37 percent of fast-casual restaurants, followed by seafood (25 percent) and “healthy” (21 percent).

Blaze Pizza/Facebook

Lalley explains that pizza is a natural fit for the Chipotle model. “You could put pretty much anything on a pizza,” she says. “You could be wild and creative with ingredients; you could differentiate with ‘premium,’ ‘high-quality,’ ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ — buzzwords that fit into a lot of things consumers are looking for.” The fact that pizza can be prepared quickly benefits both business operators and consumers, especially during the lunch rush.

In just 10 years, a handful of brands have positioned themselves to dominate the fast-casual pizza market. Elise and Rick Wetzel of Wetzel’s Pretzels had this in mind when they started their own fast-casual pizzeria chain Blaze Pizza in Pasadena, California, in 2011. Just like fast-casual pizza pioneers like Your Pie from Atlanta, Georgia, as well as contemporaries like MOD Pizza and Pieology, Blaze Pizza offers customers 11.5-inch personal pies, which can be constructed from a selection of crusts (including gluten-free), and piled high with unlimited toppings, sauces, as well as cheeses (including vegan options). After loading up the uncooked pies, employees pop them into a gas-fired stone hearth; the pies take around two to three minutes to cook.

At an average price of $8, according to Jim Mizes, Blaze Pizza’s president and CEO, the restaurants’ pies attract a wide range of customers. “We love to say: We target millennials, we’re a useful brand, but we throw a tent big enough for everybody, five- and 65-year-olds.”

MOD Pizza/Facebook

While the speed at which it cooks its pies is impressive, Blaze’s storefront opening rate is even more so. Although the chain opened its third shop in 2013, today, Blaze operates 214 locations in the United States and Canada. And Blaze recently inked a deal with international franchise operator Alshaya to open 100 locations in 10 years across the Middle East, beginning with locations in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in 2018.

“We’re gonna grow even faster in the next couple years,” Mizes says. “We believe we will be at 1,000 restaurants and a billion [dollars] in revenue in the next four to seven years.” For comparison, Pieology, which also launched in 2011, has opened more than 135 storefronts domestically, with a recent foray into international territory when it opened in Mexico. MOD Pizza, which began in 2008, currently boasts more than 200 stores in the United States and United Kingdom.

Mizes, of course, isn’t blind to the fact that “the novelty has worn off.” To create some differentiation between itself and competitors, the chain creates pizzas that cater to regional preferences: alligator in New Orleans and giardiniera peppers in Chicago, for instance.

But while a brand boasting hundreds of venues around the world can guarantee speedy pizza delivery from the hearth to the table, there’s a limit to how “artisanal” these pies can actually be.

In an interview with Zagat, Brad Kent, co-owner and chef consultant for Blaze, said that Blaze is different from the “truly artisanal” pizza customers can order at his upscale Los Angeles-based pizzeria Olio. In order to scale up, Blaze doesn’t use approximated measurements or hands-only methods of preparation; the “human-proof” methodology involves using exact pre-measured ingredients, which are then combined through a special mixing process using machines with timers.

Pizzeria Locale/Facebook

This process helps curb both labor and food costs: Following the now-ubiquitous assembly-line model, chains like Blaze or Pieology can hire cheap, low-skilled labor with no background in pizza-making, or even the food industry for that matter; similarly, promises of unlimited toppings are carefully measured: As such, management knows approximately how much each individual pie will cost them.

With systems in place and customers lining up for a taste, new entrants into the fast-casual space have to do more than offer a high-quality product for a low cost. They have to stand out. A handful of newer pizza spots, like the Roman-style Martina, which opened in New York City’s East Village this past August, are trying to blur the line between fast-casual and fine dining.

Spearheaded by Italian fine-dining veteran Nick Anderer of NYC-based Maialino and Babbo (Mario Batali’s landmark restaurant), the menu will never include anything remotely close to organic Neapolitan-style spinoffs on buffalo chicken or a meat lover’s special.

“We probably spend a lot more money on our pizzas than a lot of people,” Anderer says. “We’re still sourcing heritage pigs from two particular farms from the Ozarks to make pork fennel sausage. It’d be so easy to buy mass-produced sausage from some other place, but we decided we wanted to make it from whole pigs.”

MOD Pizza/Facebook

Giving meaning to the phrase “chef driven,” Martina’s current menu offerings, all of which are listed on the menu for $13 or less, include the Diavolo, a spicy pie topped with torn salame, as well as Fior Di Zucca, a white pie dressed with anchovies, mozzarella, and zucchini flowers from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket. A margherita pizza at Martina costs a lunch-friendly $9, compared to $15 at casual restaurants in the city. Additionally, while customers wait the three to five minutes for their pies — approximately 70 are served per hour, Anderer says — they can nosh on small bites and sip on beers or wine from the champagne fridge, adorned with an eponymous, neon-pink sign.

“I want to create a space that is compelling enough that people will want to eat here from time to time, at least,” Anderer adds. Despite its locavore approach, Martina sounds like the kind of place that, if successful in the finicky Manhattan market, could scale.

Beyond diversifying the menus at fast-casual pizzerias, a number of brands are hoping to break up the malaise of fine casual by playing up decor and aesthetics. Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, cofounder of Boulder’s Pizzeria Locale, says the brand works with Dave Woody, an award-winning portrait photographer, to feature photographs of Italian culture and cuisine throughout the restaurants. He adds that the restaurant offers customers high-quality pizzas at reduced costs by stripping back servers and waitstaff, but that doesn’t mean they can’t provide a quasi-upscale experience for diners.

“Is it not possible to provide hospitality in 10 minutes, like, ‘Hello, goodbye, thanks for coming?’” Lachlan says. “We want to be like the Cheers of a pizzeria, that’s it. You can’t franchise or scale unless the franchisees are experienced operators. They don’t get the concept.”

Pizzeria Locale/Facebook

Admittedly, this third wave of pizzerias isn’t trying to go toe-to-toe with the old guard, with many operators claiming they attract different demographics with their superior ingredients and inviting decor.

But whether they like it or not, they, too, are finding themselves drawn to the sirens’ call of delivery. Anthony Carron, chef of the Los Angeles-based franchise 800 Degrees, said that when he created his concept, it was during a low point in the recession. As a result, Carron says, he and his team focused on providing customers an affordable but enjoyable in-house experience, rather than deliverable meals.

Today, that’s not necessarily the case. Although they’d rather have customers eat in their storefronts rather than on their couch at home, Carron and a growing number of fast-casual pizzeria operators are finding that services like DoorDash and UberEats are “something you can’t ignore.”

“The genie was out,” Carron says. “We’re not gonna fight it when it’s 20 to 40 percent of the business.”

Matthew Sedacca is a writer in New York.
Editor: Daniela Galarza