Blaze Pizza on Path to Developing Fast-Casual Pizzeria Network in Central Ohio

August 5, 2013

Sbarro LLC isn’t the only restaurant chain looking to make dough on the fast-casual pizza business in Columbus. Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza LLC, the operator of Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza eateries, has signed up several new franchisees, including Blaze Midwest Inc., which has plans for seven restaurants in Central Ohio and 14 more in Indianapolis, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Blaze Midwest is owned and run by Randy Stuck, Rodney Walker, Steven Stuck and James Sutika, a partnership that operates nine T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants and 42 Taco Bells in Michigan and Ohio, according to information from Blaze.

“We believe that fast-casual pizza is the next big category and we want to participate,” Randy Stuck said in a press release.

The chain has three restaurants open in California, but franchisee commitments covering 12 states and Washington, D.C.

Blaze Midwest’s first pizzeria is expected to open in Royal Oak, Mich., this fall.

Representatives of Blaze and the franchisee weren’t available for comment.

Blaze applies fast-casual’s assembly line approach to a 12-inch pizza. It has nine signature creations on its menu board and more than 40 toppings from which diners can select. The fast-fired cooking takes two minutes. Average price is $7.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based researcher Technomic Inc., earlier told me that barbecue, pizza and Italian food were three areas in the fast-casual world where there is room to grow.

Unlike Mexican fare with Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE:CMG), burgers with Five Guys Burgers and Fries and bakery-cafes with Panera Bread Co. (NASDAQ:PNRA), the pizza and Italian food specialties aren’t marked by dominant players running hundreds of restaurants. But there are plenty vying to be that victor, including a few around Columbus.

ZPizza from Newport Beach, Calif., is operating in Columbus with two restaurants and more planned. Melville, N.Y.-based Sbarro tapped Central Ohio as the proving ground for its Pizza Cucinova chain, which is to be launched this year with restaurants near Grandview Heights and in the Easton area.

The West Coast is popping with young companies of varying sizes, such as Blaze, the eight-restauraunt MOD Pizza and 800 Degrees with one restaurant. And though the restaurant counts may be small, the backing in some cases isn’t. In addition to Sbarro pursuing a new brand, the 10-store Pie Five Pizza Co. is a fast-casual venture from Colony, Texas-based Pizza Inn Holdings Inc., which runs more than 300 pizza buffets. Los Angeles-based PizzaRev, which has grown to five shops, secured financial backing from Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. (NASDAQ:BWLD), a company with Columbus roots.

Tangential to the fast-casual pizza slice of the business is fast-casual Italian, dubbed modern Italian by some, selling pasta and salad bowls as well as wrap-style piadas filled with meat, veggies, noodles and sauce. Columbus can claim an innovator in that sector with the 10-restaurant-and-expanding Piada Italian Street Food chain. But competition is stepping up with new single-restaurant ventures in Florida and Arizona, and Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli’s prepping a launch a new player for that segment.