Blaze’s 200 locations in its first five years earned it the designation from Technomic as the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.” The brand now has 345 units globally and about 200 of those have reopened dining rooms with restrictions. More are expected to open in some form in the next few weeks, Shaw says. Before the crisis, Blaze set a target of 500 stores by 2021.
The CEO notes that most locations have a dine safety leader responsible for matters like tending the drink station so people use different cups for refills and wiping down surfaces with peroxide-based cleaner.
The pizza chain is providing convenient mask bags for dine-in customers, as well.
“If you’re wearing a mask and you walk into a restaurant, if you think about it, if you take your mask off to eat, where do you put your mask?” she says. “We actually have a little bag that our desserts normally go in that’s perfectly sized to slide a mask into.”
As for the future of the industry, Shaw recalls speaking with partners who said “the appetite for delivery is bottomless.” That ongoing growth in demand puts a larger microscope on the relationship between operators and third-party delivery companies, which has been filled with tension since the pandemic started. Many locales like New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. have implemented emergency caps to relieve restaurants facing fees reaching 30-40 percent.
Shaw says the strength of the relationship depends on the provider. She prefers not to name names, but some companies are better at cultivating the relationship than others.
“As with any industry, the partnership between the vendor and the buyer is paramount, and some of them do it better than others,” Shaw says. “The ones that actually partner with the restaurant owners and acknowledge that we’re in this business together are the ones who are going to win.”
“It’s also about the consumer satisfaction,” she continues. “At a restaurant, you’re taking our product and delivering it to the consumers. So if you don’t handle the product well, you take too long, you don’t deliver the product at all and you just disappear, there’s a bigger consumer impact, so it’s more visible in terms of having to figure that out.”
Regarding future development, Shaw says long-term sustainable growth has always been a goal for Blaze. The fast-casual aims to not open restaurants just for the sake of it—the pandemic doesn’t change that model. The pizza brand is still scheduled to open more than 20 units this year.
She knows the industry will look different post-pandemic, particularly with the adaptation to off-premises and the decrease in saturation because of independents that didn’t make it.
What will remain, however, is consumers’ need for restaurants.
“Ultimately, the restaurant business, as much as there’s disruption in other industries, there’s a core of it that is just quality hospitality and great food,” Shaw says. “That doesn’t change. You can’t change that very much in terms of what people want to experience with friends and family. All of the consumer research that we’re seeing says the first thing that people want to do when life gets back to normal is go to a restaurant. It’s really top of their list of feeling normal again.”