Blaze Pizza is a brand with a lot of fans, new CEO Beto Guajardo says.
Just look at the chain’s social media—193,000 Instagram followers, 115,000 on TikTok, and 80,000 on Twitter. The numbers are far above fast-casual pizza competitors. Guajardo explains when a brand starts from that type of energy, it just has to tap into what customers already love about it. For Blaze, that’s growing a 330-unit national presence, but giving off anti-franchise vibes. A big part of that culture starts with the chain’s build-your-own 11-inch artisanal pizza option with unlimited toppings.
“That customization that folks make—it’s your pizza, Not anyone else’s,” Guajardo says. “It’s unique to you. It's what you love about it. Delivered fast with the great experience in the store. That sets it apart from the competition.”
The CEO believes there’s room to get even better. Guajardo says when an executive enters an organization, the first step should be assessing strengths and weaknesses. He adds that many pieces are already in place at Blaze. The next initiative is getting everyone focused on growing in the same direction, and that means concentrating on innovation—both on the menu and with store formats.
In terms of new product news, the company is targeting multi-daypart opportunities to give consumers more reasons to visit. For instance, Blaze is working on a new dessert to serve as an add-on to appetizers and entrées. It’s also partnering with Coca-Cola to revamp its beverage lineup. As for the hero product, Blaze is known for its 11-inch pizzas, but it also offers a 14-inch iteration that fits into the takeout or delivery experience. The go-forward strategy is to lean more heavily into that option.
“I think [Blaze’s] strength relies on the quality of our product and the experience that our customers have in the store,” Guajardo says. “There are three things that our customers are looking for today. They're looking for an accurate and quality product, which we absolutely deliver. They're looking for speed of service. Speed is the new luxury. People are willing to invest in speed. And they're looking for a warm and inviting environment to be able to experience that in. And I think those three pillars are the cornerstones of what we deliver for our customers.”
READ MORE: Blaze Pizza Keeps Growing with a Personal Touch
As for unit development, Blaze is one of the largest pizza fast casuals in the world with outlets in 38 states and six countries. The brand opened 13 restaurants in 2022 and signed seven multi-unit franchise agreements. Deals signed in the past 12 months will add 27 restaurants to the footprint in target states like Maryland, Tennessee, and Georgia. Additional franchise opportunities are in Texas, Colorado, Virginia, and key regions throughout the Northeast. Seventy-one percent of Blaze's franchisee base owns multiple stores.
Guajardo says there's plenty of whitespace. Especially if the company adapts to a smaller format with lower buildout costs for franchisees. Typically Blaze is building dining rooms that can seat 30 to 60 people, and the idea would be to downsize that number. Or, potentially, remove it completely and open takeout/delivery-only locations.
The fast casual already began a feasibility project to investigate the affordability of going to that format. On its face, the plan makes sense; there are some Blaze restaurants doing 40-60 percent in delivery and pick-up.
“The pandemic is behind us, but the pandemic changed consumer behavior, and we all know it's well-documented about the uptick in the take-home experience,” Guajardo says. “So Blaze has an opportunity to catch up, so to speak. And with a new investment profile of a smaller format, I believe that we're going to have the opportunity to reach more customers and more places across the country and international.”
Guajardo joined Blaze in January after serving as international president for Focus Brands, owner of Schlotzsky's, Moe's, Auntie Anne's, Cinnabon, Jamba, McAlister's, and Carvel. He was responsible for more than $400 million in sales in 50-plus markets with 1,900 stores, 100 operators, and 12 languages. The industry veteran also spent time as president of Schlotzsky’s and senior vice president of global strategy for Starbucks.
From his time at Focus Brands and Starbucks, Guajardo learned the importance of having eyes on stores to ensure employees and operators meet brand standards. To him, it’s imperative that executives are visiting units physically or virtually at least four to six times per year, or else it’s difficult to ensure virtues are being upheld. At Focus Brands International, his team built a virtual operations center in Costa Rica. Under this setup, Guajardo was able to complete nearly 2,800 visits in 2022 versus 125 in 2019. Stores under observation grew same-store sales 12.5 percent better than restaurants that didn’t.
It’s the same philosophy he hopes to instill at Blaze.
"I guarantee you we will have more eyes on more stores more often, and support our partners in delivering the Blaze Pizza brand experience,” Guajardo says.
In his first few weeks on the job, one of Guajardo’s first directives was to contact every company employee. He set up more than 80 one-on-one meetings with people from the corporate office, all the way down to stores. He’s had the opportunity to visit 20-plus restaurants, and he’s spoken to nearly two dozen franchisees. Within these conversations, he’s heard enthusiasm for the brand and where it can go next. What stood out to him most were several suggestions to think globally, but act locally.
“What I believe is going to be a key unlock for Blaze is to be more local to the needs of the customer,” Guajardo says. “And if that means a greater level of service, then we will provide it. If that means more localized ingredients based on the palate of the various pockets around the country, then that's what we're going to do. If that means back to offering formats that are really focused on delivery and takeout and letting the customer have a great experience with our product at home, then that's what we're gonna do.”