Several of the emerging fast-casual players claim to have created the build-your-own pizza concept, but the better question is who will be left standing. More than a dozen brands have debuted in the last five years and are now taking shape across the country, vying to become the dominant player in the growing gourmet pizza category.
It’s easy to see why. Fast casual has become a $31-billion segment since Chipotle began reinventing fast food 20 years ago. Consumers today want quality offerings made quickly. The limited-service pizza segment does $31 billion in sales and if you add casual Italian dining chains, pizza is part of a $50-billion marketplace.
Everyone wants a piece of the fast-casual pie. Chipotle, which started this craze in 1993, did almost $3 billion in sales last year, while better burger innovator Five Guys grew to 1,000 units in less than a decade.
Plenty of competitors have dreams of doing the same with pizza. They all come with interesting stories, like that of Drew French, a 30-year-old University of Georgia graduate whose Your Pie concept was really the first to open in April of 2008 in Athens, GA. There’s also a tennis coach, a Navy nuclear submarine officer, music industry executives, a fine-dining chef and more familiar names from companies like Umami Burger, Smashburger, Wetzel’s Pretzels, Moe’s Southwest Grill and even investors like Buffalo Wild Wings, Maria Shriver and LeBron James.
Their pizzas all take the same shape, but are cooked and marketed a little differently. They describe their concepts with the words “fresh,” “gourmet,” “artisanal” or “personal,” and phrases like “build your own,” “custom made” or “made on demand” are used to explain the process. Like Chipotle and Subway before, these concepts all employ similar down-the-line assembly ordering so customers can customize and watch their pizzas being made.
The pies range in size from nine to 12 inches and from super thin to softer and slightly thicker Neapolitan style. They are cooked at high temperatures in stone-hearth ovens or fast-cook conveyor units. The result is a made-to-order pizza, baked in one to six minutes, with prices around $7. Some offer unlimited toppings, while others charge by the item. Many tout homemade dough and sauces and high-quality toppings.
The concepts all offer items other than pizza, like salads, fun desserts and in some cases paninis and sandwiches. Many also sell beer and wine, all of which helps draw the dinner crowd and extend the check average.
The keys, according to Darren Tristano, e.v.p. of Technomic, are prices between six and eight dollars, delivery in three to five minutes, “gourmet” positioning and the ability to succeed in the dinner-date department.
For a potential franchisee, Tristano says these concepts are similar to other fast-casual chains in startup costs and profit potential. An initial investment ranging from $350,000 to $450,000 is necessary, and if successful, sales can reach a million dollars annually with 15- to 25-percent profit margins.
Tim Green, a pizza veteran and the corporate chef for Wood Stone Corp., says two things will separate the winners and losers: the food and service.
“Capital and marketing are a big deal, but how they all finish at the end of the day is based on quality of product and customer service,” says Green, whose company makes the ovens used by seven of these concepts. “I think the next five years will tell us a lot.”
By that point, many of the competitors have plans for market domination, much like Chipotle or Five Guys, but Tristano doesn’t think the same path is a given for pizza.
“The biggest reason Five Guys was able to grow and dominate was because the major burger chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King took their eyes off the prize: the burger,” he says. Existing pizza brands—like Papa John’s, Domino’s and Little Caesars—have not done that, and to the contrary, are improving quality and affordability. “It’s going to be very competitive,” he predicts, “with two or three players becoming leaders. Many will remain regional players or become victims.”
The winners will likely come from the list of concepts profiled in chronological order of their debuts on the next several pages. More players are out there—Sbarro just announced plans for Pizza Cucinova, set to debut this fall in Columbus, OH, and Build Pizzeria Roma opened its first store in Berkeley, CA, in April—and more will surely follow. But they’ll be starting out behind this dozen, who all have at least one store open and plans for many more.