For those willing to stop by his new fast-casual pizza eateries instead of having it delivered, Carlsbad-based restaurateur James Markham says he’s got “30 minutes or less” beat by a mile. His operating recipe calls for made-to-order pies in about two minutes.
Following a prior debut at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Markham’s Project Pie recently opened in Hillcrest, with more openings to follow later this year in Boulder, Colo., Washington, D.C., and New York City, among other markets.
The restaurants feature the company’s “artisanal,” made-to-order pizzas, with an array of meat, cheese and vegetable toppings from which customers can choose – similar to the way they would pick their burrito ingredients at a place like Chipotle Mexican Grill, as they walk along a service line.
Hot, Hot, Hot
Once toppings are added, the pizza heads to a custom-designed, 800-degree oven, where it is baked in less than two minutes, Markham said. The restaurants have a one-size, one-price policy – approximately $7.50 for a thin-crust, 12-inch pie with unlimited toppings – and also serve side items such as salads.
“What Chipotle does for burritos, that’s what we set out to do with this concept,” said Markham, a 20-year restaurant industry veteran who started out among the first franchisees of Cold Stone Creamery and later founded several popular pizza concepts over the years.
The 2,400-square-foot Hillcrest restaurant is at Fourth and University avenues, in the former site of Sambuca Italian Bistro, and designed in a style that Markham calls “vintage industrial.” Each location will employ approximately 25 people, and he said he is scouting more sites in San Diego County, including the North County base where he once started and later sold a five-restaurant chain called Knockout Pizza several years ago.
Based on the performance of the Las Vegas location, he said the new restaurants are on track to make approximately $1.4 million in sales per location in their first year. While the first 10 to 15 will be company owned, Markham’s firm has applied to franchise the concept in Michigan and other states, and has already lined up an operator for 25 restaurants in the Philippines.
The Goals: Fresh and Fast
Markham said his goals with the new eateries included offering time-strapped customers a healthier, faster alternative to restaurant chain pizza, especially during the workday. He also aimed for a fresher alternative to restaurants that serve pizza by the slice, but often after reheating pre-made pies.
“If you go into a place wanting a slice, and they don’t have exactly what you wanted, you end up picking something else you maybe didn’t want so much,” Markham said. “I wanted to have people avoid that situation, so they can order it exactly as they want it.”
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic Inc., said the Carlsbad-based chain is among several pizza purveyors now involved in the upscaling of a traditional fast-food item – similar to the “better burger” trend of the past few years that has spawned several national competitors – with an eye toward fresher, healthier ingredients.
“It’s happening all over the country, and it’s the next big thing in that segment,” Tristano said.
Combining speed and quality has generally been a challenge in the Italian food category, Tristano noted, but evolving cooking technologies are increasingly allowing pizza to be served in fast-casual restaurant settings.
Drawing the Dinner Crowd?
He said the concept generally works best for the lunch crowd, and long-term challenges for this particular industry segment will include expanding its reach to the dinner hour, and to families and groups that still prefer delivery of large pies as a cost-efficient meal option.
Markham’s journey into the realm of custom-made pizzas has been busy but also somewhat restless over the past five years. After living for about a year in China, where he opened and operated a chain in Shanghai called New York Style Pizza, he returned to the U.S. in 2008 and started MOD Pizza – the letters stand for “made on demand” with several locations in the Seattle area. That venture was co-founded with Ally and Scott Svenson, founders of Seattle Coffee Co.
Markham eventually left MOD to design another fast-casual pizza concept, called Pieology, opening the first location in Fullerton in 2011. He sold his stake in that venture in early 2012, in order to develop Project Pie.
In his current company, he is joined by a team of experienced advisers and investors, including restaurant entrepreneur and investor Joel Tucker. Markham said he has made moves over the years – including breaking with established partners – in order to hone his vision of the fast-serve artisan pizza.
The process has been one of continuous trial and error – testing out numerous toppings, dough ingredients and cooking methods. “Project Pie is a culmination of learning from my own concepts,” he said.