Inside the Pizza Wars
When it comes to fast-casual pizza, the war between different concepts and brands is an ever-evolving one. In recent years, new players, new concepts, and innovation among brands are driving up competition. Excluding the “Big Four”—Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s—we took a look at the other concepts in the upstart fast-casual pizza world to see which brands are currently positioned to make it big.
When it comes to value, customization, and speed, MOD Pizza has won over customers with 330 locations in 28 states. While dining at MOD customers, receive one fully customized pizza with an unlimited amount of proteins and veggies for a single price of about $8.
Over the past decade since opening its first location in Seattle in 2008, the company has found success breaking into new markets and opening locations in existing markets. In 2017 alone, the brand added 110 stores and system-wide sales reached $275 million, reflecting a year-over-year increase of 81 percent, while company net revenue hit $219 million, up 68 percent over 2016. Unlike other fast casual pizza chains, MOD does not deliver. Although some might see that as a weakness, the brand is trying out alternative ways, like drive-thru or pick up windows, at different locations to improve consumer experience.
“We’re not sure how this will all develop and come to life,” MOD cofounder and CEO Scott Svenson Svenson said. “But we know we’re going to be open-minded. We don’t want to be myopic in our thinking … and need to consider different ways to extend the high-quality experience we’re really proud of.”
Technology also is on the top of Svenson’s mind when it comes to innovation in the brand. “Technology’s transforming almost every touch point of our operation, and staying on top of this is something we have to do today to stay relevant and competitive,” Svenson said, adding that MOD’s technology team is the fastest-growing group at the 200-plus-unit, Seattle-based company.
Gaining popularity with celebrity investors like NBA superstar LeBron James, journalist Maria Shriver, Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, and film producer John Davis, Blaze Pizza’s momentum hasn’t slowed down since it opened in 2011. This past summer the fast-casual pizza chain opened its 300th location in the U.S., expanding the brand’s footprint to 40 states. Expansion on the franchise side of the business is also a high priority for the brand as it announced the addition of 30 new franchise partners to its current group of 55 multi-unit franchise developers.
“Now that our current franchise partners are established, we’re excited to add the next wave of new franchisees to our family,” said Carolyne Canady, chief development officer and president of Blaze Pizza’s international division. “We’ve just opened up a hand full of territories and we invite experienced multi-unit operators who are looking to partner with an amazing, fast-growing restaurant brand to get in touch with us.”
Domestically, Blaze Pizza currently has restaurants open in 40 U.S. states. Additionally, the company has seven locations in Canada, and plans to add 11 new sites in 2018, including three new locations in Vancouver. This year, Blaze has seen record sales in its first Middle East locations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia through a partnership with M.H. Alshaya Co.
If 40 years in business wasn’t enough of a milestone for Mountain Mike’s Pizza, the brand reached another major one this fall when it opened its 200th unit in Sacramento, California. Over the past year, the pizza chain opened 12 restaurants and has a goal of opening four more by the end of 2018. Looking to the future, the brand plans to surpass 300 units within the next few years. To help with the accelerated growth plan and to help drive continued growth, YUM! Brands veteran Jim Metevier was brought on earlier this fall.
“After 40 years of serving up superior pizza and being a go-to destination for family dining, we are proud to have reached this 200th store milestone during a very exciting time for the brand,” said Chris Britt and Ed St. Geme, co-CEOs and principal owners of Mountain Mike’s Pizza, LLC. “There’s a strong demand in our target markets for a family-friendly pizza concept and, as proven by more than a decade of positive annual system sales growth, Mountain Mike’s continues to satisfy the group and family dining occasions where others fall short.”
It may not have as many units as MOD or Blaze, but &pizza has a following of dedicated customers that flock to the brand’s 26 locations. Founded in 2012 and helmed by CEO, co-founder, and creative director Michael Lastoria, the pizza chain expanded from 23 to 26 units after finishing a round of strategic funding from RSE Ventures. &pizza brought on RSE Ventures Stephen Ross and Matthew Higgins to its board of directors hoping to use their real estate and operating expertise to help them purposefully expand their footprint past the East Coast and across the U.S.
Matt Higgins said, “It’s our aim at RSE to arm innovative and socially conscious brands with the tools they need to command their categories. Michael Lastoria has already upended the fast-casual food space by fostering an enviable and authentic company culture through his financial commitment to &pizza’s most valuable asset—its employees. We look forward to supporting Lastoria as he brings &pizza’s inclusive message, smart business and superior product to new markets.”
&pizza was also a pioneer in improving working conditions, employee benefits, and raising the minimum wage for employees throughout the brand. Higgins explained this sets &pizza apart from other fast casual brands. “&pizza accomplishes both by paying and advocating for a living wage and healthcare benefits—and its employees know it’s not just a tactic,” he said. “Lastoria routinely takes his gospel to Capitol Hill to fight for raised minimum wage standards.”
Now with more than 45 restaurants across the country, PizzaRev offers a build-your-own artisanal pizza experience featuring fresh pressed homemade dough, locally sourced ingredients, all-natural cheeses and vegan, and gluten-free options. Most unique to PizzaRev, and what enables the restaurant’s unprecedented speed of service, is the custom-built, 900-degree stone-bed oven. Guests watch the dancing flames in the background as their pizzas are fired to a perfect, Roman-style crispiness in less than three minutes. Exposed ceilings, concrete floors, and natural tones will offer a minimalist, yet inviting atmosphere, where the focus is on providing guests with an interactive pizza experience.
The brand launched a customer loyalty program and app for PizzaRev fans in November 2016 allowing customers to craft their own pizza and make ordering online easier.
“Our mobile app will play an increasingly important role in delivering a seamless, 360 degree PizzaRev experience for our guests,” said PizzaRev’s Chief Marketing Officer, Jeff Zuckerman. “The app and ‘Rev Rewards’ program will enable us to customize the relationship and experience each guest has with our brand, based on their individual dining and ordering preferences."
800 Degrees Wood Fired Kitchen
An executive revamp shook things up for 800 Degrees in early 2017 after the LA-based fast-fine concept assembled an executive team of industry leaders ready to shape the next chapter of the brand. Key changes began in January 2017, when industry veteran Tommy Lee took the helm as CEO. Earlier this year, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade joined the pizza brand as an investor, following the footsteps of LeBron and Kevin Durant, who made similar investments in other pizza chains.
“I am both humbled and excited that Dwyane has chosen to partner with 800° Woodfired Kitchen,” said Chef Anthony Carron, founder of 800° Woodfired Kitchen, in a statement. “Dwyane and I connected instantly over our shared love for fresh and thoughtfully prepared food, which is what this concept is all about. I admire Dwyane’s commitment to aligning himself with brands he is passionate about, and know with our joint vision and enthusiasm, 800° Woodfired Kitchen will continue to be made accessible to communities around the world.”
There are currently seven U.S. restaurants with international locations in Tokyo, Japan, Dubai, the UAE, and Doha, Qatar the brand is continually looking for opportunities to expand and see Wade helping expand concepts to new markets.
“When I first discovered 800° Woodfired Kitchen I was impressed by the inviting atmosphere and the fact that its menu offered something for everyone,” Wade added in a statement. “As a professional athlete, I understand the importance of eating well. 800° Woodfired Kitchen raises the culinary bar by offering guests a unique dining experience with high-quality ingredients and delicious food in a relaxed setting. I’m excited to partner with a growing company as they continue to expand with new locations around the world and introduce this concept to wider audiences.”
Pieology made headlines last year when it announced Durant took an ownership stake in the company. Like other fast casual pizza chains, Pieology is constantly looking for innovation when it comes to menu items and growth opportunities to set itself apart from other create-your-own pizza chains. In October 2017, Pieology opened a unit in Aliso Viejo, California, designed to give its customers a first look at new items and a seat at the company’s R&D table. With more than 130 locations across 23 U.S. states, the chain is looking for expansion opportunities in different markets.
Oath Craft Pizza
Small, but mighty Oath Craft Pizza has grown to 11 locations across the Northeast with more expansion in the near future. After partnering with Aramark, a global leader in food, facilities, and uniforms, in August 2018, Oath is looking to continue producing high-quality pizza at new locations at a quicker rate.
“We innovate continually to enhance consumers’ food experiences with unique and on-trend culinary solutions that are also local and sustainable,” said Victor Crawford, a chief operating officer for Aramark. “Our partnership with Oath will further enable us to provide a high quality, convenient, healthy and personalized menu option, not to mention a great-tasting pizza with a purpose.”
Oath Pizza is scheduled to open sites this month on college campuses served by Aramark. Locations in businesses and hospital cafés have already opened as a result of the partnership, with another location opening in Pennsylvania coming soon.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with Aramark to scale up and reach new audiences,” Oath Pizza CEO Patrik Hellstrand said. “This partnership will give Oath Pizza access to unique and exclusive dining options to bring our certified humane and ethically-sourced pizzas to a greater number of people who love delicious food and want to feel good about their eating decisions.”
As of fall 2018, customers can find made-to-order pizza from Your Pie in 59 locations across 19 states. On September 7, Your Pie opened in Cumming, Georgia, joining more than 20 locations across the brand’s home state. Your Pie will continue growing its Georgia footprint in quarter four, with locations planned for Tucker, Winder, Macon, Monroe, Smyrna and Canton. Towards the end of 2018 the company is also looking to expand its footprint in Florida.
Even as Your Pie expands to new markets and introduces new initiatives, community involvement remains a top priority. During the third quarter, Your Pie stores nationwide hosted events to support their local communities, including benefit nights for local schools, charities, and organizations.
“At Your Pie, community will always be at the forefront of our mission,” French adds. “That’s one thing we will never lose, regardless of how far and wide our brand grows. For us, the Your Pie Family includes more than just our team—it includes our customers and the community beyond the four walls of our stores. We’re proud of how we have grown in 2018 and plan to continue using our growth as a platform to improve the lives of the Your Pie Family.”
Earlier this year, Marco’s Pizza celebrated a few milestones, including the opening of its 1,000 stores and 40 years in business. The company also announced the promotion of Chief Operations Officer Tony Libardi to president. Capitalizing on the opportunity to open multiple franchises in smaller markets, the brand is hoping to open an additional 30 locations in Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico by 2020. According to a statement, “the 900-plus unit brand aims to reach 1,500 locations by 2020, crediting its rapid growth to its strong corporate backing, ability to take market share, unit-level profitability, authentic Italian quality food standards as well as capability to attract top talent among its franchisees.”
The Pizza Press
Founded in 2012, the California-based pizza company has expanded to more than 30 locations nationwide in the past six years. Playing off the newspaper theme, the build your-own pizza chain submerses diners into the 1920s for their dining experience. In 2018, the company announced an aggressive growth plan to open restaurants in 20 locations throughout Florida, including in the Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Melbourne markets.
“As we expand in Florida, The Pizza Press is committed to providing exceptional customer experience and quality service in all locations,” said Dara Maleki, founder and CEO of The Pizza Press. “We look forward to working with more franchise partners as they bring the newsworthy experience of The Pizza Press to their communities across the state.”
In a statement, The Pizza Press announced plans to have 300 franchise locations awarded by 2020.
Rapid Fired Pizza
After opening in September 2015 in Kettering, Ohio, Rapid Fired Pizza has since expanded to 25 different locations. At Rapid Fired Pizza, customers can choose from an 11-inch thin or 9-inch pan pizza, with more than 30 toppings, and 14 dipping sauces to build their perfect pizza, or they can try one of the 10 craft pizzas on the menu. In its first year the company quickly opened five locations and saw potential for expansion to different markets. And the expansion hasn’t slowed down over the past three years. Currently, Rapid Fired Pizza has seven new units in current markets in the works. It is looking to expand to six new states across the Southeast in the near future.
SPIN! Neapolitan Pizza
Chef-driven Spin! Neapolitan Pizza is a strong contender in the fast-casual pizza wars. Created from quick-service veterans Ed Brownell and Gail and Richard Lozoff, the trio swapped their success in the bagel business for pizza. The first location opened in 2005 and has since expanded to 18 locations. In the past three years alone, the company has opened 12 new locations.
"We had a period of fast growth, which went well. We want to make sure that we maintain a discipline of growing only to the degree we have experienced managers who understand our culture," said Brownell, a partner in SPIN!.