After six years of operations and multistate growth to 33 units, Rapid Fired Pizza has new leadership guiding its path forward. This month, the chain was acquired by South Carolina franchise company Pie Guys Restaurants.
Owners Mike Kern and Chip Hurst operate locations in Spartanburg, Greenville, and Easley, South Carolina, and also work as area developers for the brand. With the acquisition accomplished, Kern has become CEO and president of Rapid Fired, while Hurst is chief development officer. Meanwhile Rapid Fired founder Ray Wiley has stayed on as a licensee in Ohio.
Several years ago, Kern and Hurst identified fast-casual pizza as an intriguing opportunity within the restaurant sphere. During several months of research and due diligence, the duo visited more than 100 restaurants, and that disciplined evaluation process led them to Rapid Fired, a chain known for its handcrafted pizzas cooked in 180 seconds or less. It emerged as the best fit to grow, and Kern and Hurst have opened three stores since 2018.
With the success Rapid Fired brought them as franchisees, they decided to approach Wiley about taking the brand to new heights. That was when the acquisition came together.
“The timing just aligned for him to focus more on his other brands and concepts and for us to take the baton and take Rapid Fired hopefully to the next level or two in its chapters of growth,” Kern says.
The duo is entering Rapid Fired leadership with years of experience. Kern was previously both the CEO and CMO of Long John Silver’s and vice president of marketing for KFC, having also operated more than 30 Long John Silver’s and A&W restaurants. Hurst has more than 20 years of experience in commercial real estate development across multiple industries.
“The group here is exceptionally excited and very much appreciative of what Ray Wiley and his team created and built in an incredibly short time and delighted to have them remain in the system as a licensee,” Kern says. “So our access to Ray and his original thinking and institutional knowledge will always be there.”
Wiley built a young brand that has already scaled well, according to Kern. Now the focus is on building the company to another level. Kern and Hurst feel they are the right people to lead this period of growth because of their firsthand experience running stores and forming bonds with franchisees.
The basic economic model Rapid Fired employs, with its smaller buildout costs and unit economics, presents a strong proposition to any operator, the new owners say. The cook platforms drive the store layout and production system, which leads to improved staffing and labor requirements and differentiating order speeds.
Kern explains that he’s a strong proponent of the franchise model, and that engaged, multi-unit operators can create a powerful system.
“I’ve seen it work very well,” Kern says. “I’ve seen it when it maybe didn’t work so well and come to understand why. So I’m a believer in the model, and I believe that’s a big part of what Rapid Fired has going for it and sets it up for success.”
While Kern has seen what is necessary to stay relevant and evolve at mature legacy brands, he thinks the same lessons can be applied to an emerging brand like Rapid Fired, which has just reached beyond 30 units in six states.
“A lot of the disciplines and success criteria in the market are going to be the same,” Kern says. “It’s just depending on where you’re at in your life cycle. You’ve got to approach it uniquely and appropriately. I’ve worn many hats and sat on many sides of the desk in this industry and have as much zest for it now as I did a little time ago and a long time ago.”
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Kern and Hurst also have the experience of running Rapid Fired units through a pandemic. The brand’s products pivoted well, because on a fundamental level, the consumer was open and receptive to pizza, Kern says. During COVID, the chain’s pizza remained valuable and convenient, and also served as a source of comfort through tough times.
While the brand withstood severe impacts of COVID better than most, it still had to adapt.
Online ordering, curbside pickup, and take-and-bake represented a majority of sales.
“Whatever channel the customer was comfortable with looking for in a COVID environment, the brand pivoted to it and developed a service system and a product offering to fulfill those customers’ new comfort zones on how to access the brand,” Kern says.
Rapid Fired was already a dynamic brand pre-COVID, Kern says, but during the pandemic the chain proved it. By pivoting into these alternative channels and developing new products, the brand reclaimed lost volume within three to six months. Now the brand performs at essentially pre-COVID levels, Kern says.
What happens next to Rapid Fired in its post-acquisition stage includes a lot of fine-tuning of its economic model and optimization of the brand proposition. This is for both consumers and operators, Kern says.
Rapid Fired’s footprint thus far has centered on the Midwest, Southeast, Texas, and soon California. Moving forward, Kern says they want to focus on the existing footprint and fill in its gaps while building consumer anticipation and recognition for the brand.
The vast majority of Rapid Fired’s franchisees are multi-unit operators, so they have more capacity and knowledge to scale even further.
“It’s a balancing act as usual as far as being early to market,” Kern says. “Where there’s opportunities to be market leader, seizing those and recognizing the value of those, but making sure it’s still part of a cohesive strategy and getting it right.”
Rapid Fired is not without guardrails in how it goes about this growth. Kern believes the brand has the potential to easily triple in size.
To date, roughly three quarters of the footprint are franchise-owned and one-quarter is company-run. It’s a ratio the brand will likely maintain throughout its expansion for now.
Rapid Fired will also incorporate nontraditional locations grocery stores, stadiums, and student centers. There are two grocery store trials in the mix, and a few sports arena contracts, as well.
On the operations side, Kern says they intend to make sure the basics are established, and then the mission is to tighten up and distill the core menu.
Whether in crust types or vegetable or meat toppings, seasonality and lifestyle trends will be a part of Rapid Fired’s playbook to keep the brand relevant and fresh to customers, Kern says. Because of the nature of pizza, there’s seemingly no end to the variety of options Rapid Fired can bring to consumers, even amid supply shortages.
“When the guest comes in at certain points in the year and feels like, ‘Well, I’ve got my favorites, I’ve got my usual, but what’s new, what’s different, what’s something that fits the season,’ we’re going to have something to address that,” Kern says.