Fast Forward: A Podcast from QSR Magazine

    Made for restaurant executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders, each episode of "Fast Forward" features an interview with fast-casual founders and visionaries who discuss the ongoing successes and challenges of building a restaurant company from scratch.

    Texas taco chain survives covid pandemic with innovative flavors.
    Kathy Tran / Velvet Taco
    Clay Dover is president and CEO of Velvet Taco, a fast-casual taco chain that has grown to 15 locations and has plans for national expansion. Stream the podcast in the player below to hear how Velvet Taco is leaning into its wildly creative menu innovation as a way to survive the COVID-19 crisis.
     

    As the leading voice for quick-service and fast-casual insights, QSR has unique access to founders, owners, operators, and executives who keep the wheels of the industry turning. And every week we're offering exclusive access to those perspectives through our podcast, Fast Forward. 

    Available on all of the major podcast platforms, Fast Forward provides interviews with everyone from quick-service chain CEOs to emerging fast casual entrepreneurs, discussing the unique challenges of their business and best practices for setting their operation up for success—particularly in our challenging post-pandemic economy. Interviews between the subjects and QSR editor Sam Oches are casual and compelling, lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour in length, and invite listeners to join in for exclusive insights from some of the industry's brightest minds. 

    See above for the entire Fast Forward archives, and scroll for more insights into individual episodes. 

    Grindhouse

    Grindhouse Killer Burgers founder Alex Brounstein

     

    Grindhouse Killer Burgers may not have much acclaim outside its home markets of Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, but locals have fallen in love with its funky vibe and premium burgers. The concept—which has three brick-and-mortars in Atlanta and one in Athens, along with a spot in Atlanta's airport—boasts welcoming patios, full bars, and decor that spotlights low-budget grindhouse flicks of yesteryear. 

    In the first part of this episode, founder Alex Brounstein details the story behind Grindhouse and how it's become a cult favorite in the Atlanta area. And in the second part, Brounstein explains how Grindhouse has managed to survive the coronavirus pandemic by finally partnering with third-party delivery and getting creative with its menu and operations.

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    DoorDash

    DoorDash vice president of business development Toby Espinosa

     

    Toby Espinosa is vice president of business development at DoorDash, the third-party delivery platform that's rocketed to popularity since launching seven years ago, but has especially boomed over the last few months as restaurants pivot to off-premises business in the wake of the coronavirus.

    He joins the podcast to talk about how DoorDash is listening to its restaurant partners in developing new solutions, how virtual brands and ghost kitchens are playing a role in the off-premises evolution, and how third-party platforms and restaurant operators can both be happy with their delivery partnership moving forward.

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    Peter Cancro's success story is unlike any other in the restaurant industry. When he was just 17 years old, Cancro purchased the sub shop where he worked on the Jersey Shore, and he transformed it into a thriving sandwich franchise that now has more than 1,700 U.S. locations that do over $1 billion annually in sales. But the numbers don't paint the whole story; Jersey Mike's has also been renowned for the ways in which it takes care of people, both in its communities and in its franchise system.

    Cancro joins the podcast to discuss how Jersey Mike's is taking care of its store owners, how it's investing in the future of the franchise, and how it's providing for its communities throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. 

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    Clean Juice

    Clean Juice cofounder Landon and Kat Eckles

    When Kat and Landon Eckles opened the first Clean Juice outside Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2015, the intention wasn't necessarily to build a thriving franchise. Passionate about healthy, organic foods and with several years of experience serving them to their kids, the husband-and-wife duo were just looking for a change after a season with Landon often on the road and Kat as a stay-at-home mom. But the concept quickly took off, and through franchising has grown to nearly 100 locations serving juices, smoothies, bowls, and foods—all of it 100 percent organic. 

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, the Eckleses discuss how they've positioned Clean Juice to be a wellness-oriented brand, how their faith has informed the core values behind the company, and how they've overcome the challenges of maintaining a completely organic menu.

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    Naf Naf Grill

    Naf Naf CEO Paul Damico

     

    Paul Damico originally made a name for himself as the president of Moe's Southwest Grill, scaling the fast-casual Mexican brand from 200 units to around 700 in his eight years with FOCUS Brands. But in 2017, Roark Capital Group—majority owner of FOCUS—asked Damico if he'd be interested in serving as CEO of one of the group's much smaller investments, Naf Naf Grill. Springing at the chance to build something nearly from the ground up, Damico moved to Chicago and took the helm at the fast-casual Middle Eastern concept.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Damico shares why he left FOCUS Brands to lead a startup, why he thinks Naf Naf has the potential to become a booming franchise, and how he thinks restaurant brands should navigate the explosion in off-premises business.

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    Duck Donuts

    Duck Donuts founder Russ DiGilio

     

    Aside from Krispy Kreme and Dunkin', doughnut brands have mostly failed to gain national notoriety in the U.S., instead remaining niche, regional favorites that stick closely to traditional formats and flavors. But Duck Donuts is looking to change the narrative around doughnuts, rocketing to nearly 100 locations around the country serving a wide variety of innovative flavors that can be customized by guests.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Duck Donuts founder Russ DiGilio explains why he left a long career in healthcare to open a doughnut shop in North Carolina's Outer Banks, why the experience of watching the doughnuts being made is critical to the Duck brand, and why he doesn't plan to add yeast doughnuts to the menu anytime soon.

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    Sweetgreen

    Through its $1 million pledge to FoodCorps, Sweetgreen is helping to bring nutrition education to students in U.S. cafeterias like Mount Eagle Elementary in Alexandria, Virginia.

     

    In just 13 years, Sweetgreen has become a foodservice darling with more than 100 locations. But the salad fast casual—which has leveraged a high-quality supply chain and bleeding-edge approach to restaurant technology to reach a valuation of $1.6 billion—is determined to create a legacy beyond the four walls of its restaurants. That's why it recently pledged $1 million (along with other resources) to the nonprofit FoodCorps, which is working to connect kids to healthy food in what's essentially the largest chain in America: school cafeterias.

    In this exclusive Fast Forward feature, QSR editor Sam Oches goes behind the scenes of Sweetgreen's partnership with FoodCorps and how it's leveraging its expertise to enhance the food experience for America's 30 million K–12 students.

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    Chi'Lantro BBQ

    Chi'Lantro BBQ founder Jae Kim.

     

    When Jae Kim launched the Korean barbecue truck Chi'Lantro BBQ in Austin, Texas, in February 2010, he figured serving Korean-Mexican fusion tacos and burritos to the city's late-night crowd would be enough to build a buzz and lead him to his dream of opening a restaurant. But there was one piece missing, and it came to Kim one fateful night as he lamented disposing of an unused batch of kimchi. He heaped the kimchi on french fries and piled it with other ingredients, and the Original Kimchi Fries were born.

    Armed with the massively popular Kimchi Fries and a growing national acclaim, Kim scaled Chi'Lantro as a brick-and-mortar concept and got an extra boost from a "Shark Tank" appearance in 2016. In this interview with QSR editor Sam Oches, Kim explains how he evolved the concept from a truck to brick and mortar, why he walked away from his "Shark Tank" investment, and why he's ready to grow Chi'Lantro through franchising.

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    P. Terry's

    P. Terry's founder Patrick Terry

     

    Take one look at a P. Terry's restaurant and you might think it's been around for generations. From the Googie architecture to the roadside burger-stand vibe, Austin, Texas–based P. Terry's has created a timeless experience dedicated to quality, value, and customer service. And that's exactly how founder Patrick Terry intended it when he opened the first P. Terry's—in 2005.

    Terry sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to discuss the chain's 15-year success story, how it gets away with selling Black Angus burgers for $4 or less, and why a deep commitment to both customers and employees has helped turn the brand into a cult favorite across Texas.

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    Golden Chick

    Golden Chick president Jim Stevens (left) and owner Mark Parmerlee

     

    Fast-casual chains that have been around for a decade or less have the luxury of easily adapting to new trends and technologies. Legacy chains that have been around for generations? Not so much. But Mark Parmerlee, owner of Dallas-based Golden Chick, a chicken quick serve with nearly 200 locations primarily in the South, has strived to keep the 50-year-old concept rooted in its homestyle authenticity while also keeping up with the times.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Parmerlee and Golden Chick president Jim Stevens detail their plan for getting Golden Chick to 500 units, and they discuss how they've evolved the brand over the years to remain competitive.

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    Eatzi's

    Eatzi's CEO Adam Romo

    Before the off-premises boom, before third-party delivery, and before meal kits, there was the home meal replacement movement. Restaurant concepts like Boston Market promoted the idea of feeding a whole family with freshly prepared, grab-and-go options, not just singular menu items. This was the environment in 1996 when Phil Romano launched Eatzi's in Dallas, and while the market concept's initial growth sputtered after just a few years, today it's enjoying a renaissance and growing once again.

    CEO Adam Romo sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to discuss Eatzi's unique business model, the lessons he and the team learned from their early struggles, and how the business is adapting to today's foodservice climate.

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    Liberty Burger / Street's Fine Chicken

    Liberty Burger and Street's Fine Chicken partners Mariel (left) and Marco Street

    Some restaurateurs join the industry as teenagers, others jump in as a second career. Mariel and Marco Street were born into it. Their father, Gene Street, is a renowned Dallas restaurateur who started the Black-Eyed Pea concept, and they grew up surrounded by restaurant innovation. That was a big reason why they went on to become partners in Liberty Burger and Street's Fine Chicken, two Dallas-area concepts that aim to provide relaxed neighborhood dining destinations with flexible service formats.

    The Streets sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches in one of their Liberty Burger locations to discuss how their iconic father has helped guide them along the way, why some of their restaurants are full service, and how the itch to build something new drives them into the future.

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    Honeygrow

    Honeygrow founder Justin Rosenberg

    For its first few years in business, Honeygrow enjoyed the same kind of momentum and accolades as other trendy fast casuals popping up on the East Coast. Its unique stir-fry menu and ahead-of-its-time touchscreen ordering platform helped it earn a loyal following and propelled it out of its home market of Philadelphia and into cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. But in 2018, Honeygrow's momentum came to a screeching halt. The launch of sister concept Minigrow, along with a three-unit expansion into Chicago, proved to be bad bets, and Rosenberg was forced to make some difficult decisions in turning the brand around.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Rosenberg details the story of Honeygrow's rise, reveals the red flags that convinced him it was in need of an overhaul, and shares the secret to how the brand successfully righted the ship.

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    Wing Zone

    Wing Zone cofounder Matt Friedman

    College campuses can be tough for running a restaurant business. Students are fickle, the hours are late, and come summer time, your key demographic clears out of town. But for Matt Friedman, college campuses have been a perfect real estate opportunity for his fast casual Wing Zone, which he has scaled to nearly 100 units around the world.

    Friedman sat down for a conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about how he mastered college towns, and how his commitment to delivery in the early 1990s is paying dividends for the business today.

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    Salt & Straw

    Salt & Straw cofounder Kim Malek

    Howard Schultz famously committed to a “third place” mentality when scaling Starbucks into the global icon that it is today, creating a space outside the home and office where consumers could feel comfortable. And Kim Malek now hopes to accomplish the same thing through ice cream. The cofounder of Portland, Oregon–based Salt & Straw—and former Starbucks executive—is working with her cousin and cofounder Tyler Malek to build a national ice cream brand that pairs a dedication to local communities with “deliciously interesting” ice cream.

    Kim sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to share what she learned from Schultz and her newest mentor and investor, Danny Meyer. Plus, she talks about how telling stories through ice cream has helped the company plant roots in the communities it serves.

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    Melt Shop

    Melt Shop founder Spencer Rubin

    There was a time, not so long ago, when fast-casual brands built around one menu item started to gain some traction, whether it was meatball brands or doughnut brands or even avocado brands. Then there was the grilled-cheese trend; a wave of grilled-cheese concepts sprung up in the early 2010s, offering premium takes on the comfort-food sandwich. But while many of those brands faded away, Melt Shop—a fast casual founded in New York City in 2011—managed to evolve into a thriving melted sandwich franchise that is carving its own niche in fast casual.

    Spencer Rubin, founder and CEO, sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about how Melt Shop evolved on the path to success, and how its position within Aurify Brands' portfolio has given it a big advantage.

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    Brown Bag Seafood

    Brown Bag Seafood Co. partners Zach Flanzman (left) and Donna Lee

    Historically, seafood has maintained something of a small corner in the limited-service restaurant industry. Few brands outside of Long John Silver's and Captain D's have managed to expand nationally, and those that have succeeded have largely been known for fried seafood options.

    But that's starting to change, thanks to fast casuals like Chicago-based Brown Bag Seafood Co. Founder Donna Lee launched the concept as a way to offer Windy City residents the kind of fresh, healthier, fish-forward fare she preferred for her own diet. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Lee and business partner Zach Flanzman share how they're building a seafood culture in Chicago while navigating the challenges of running a multiunit restaurant operation.

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    SAJJ Mediterranean

    SAJJ Mediterranean CEO Zaid Ayoub

    Fast-casual Mediterranean is having a moment. The customization format so popular in fast casual has become the perfect vehicle for the fresh, often healthier profiles of Mediterranean foods, and brands like CAVA and Zoes Kitchen are helping dishes like hummus, pita, shawarma, and falafel go mainstream.

    SAJJ Mediterranean is one concept striking while the iron is hot. The Bay Area brand launched in 2012 as a food truck, and has since grown to 10 California brick-and-mortar locations, with plans for 20 by the end of 2020. CEO and cofounder Zaid Ayoub sat down with QSR editor Sam Oches to explain how the brand balances authenticity with new customer trends—and how technology has empowered SAJJ to take its unique flavors to the people.

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    Fast-casual veteran executive Greg Dollarhyde

    Greg Dollarhyde knew he didn't want to build restaurant concepts from scratch, but he also had the skill set necessary to taking brands from potential to profit. After bouncing around to several restaurant-industry leadership positions, he struck gold with Baja Fresh, a fast-casual burrito joint that he grew to nearly 300 locations before selling to Wendy's in 2002 for $275 million. Since then, he's served as the CEO of both Zoes Kitchen and Veggie Grill, two concepts that he helped set up for massive fast-casual success.

    These days, Dollarhyde is an industry investor and sits on the board of directors for Veggie Grill and Blaze Pizza. In this conversation with QSReditor Sam Oches, he offers lessons from his illustrious career and gives some advice to fellow entrepreneurs looking to make it big in the fast-casual restaurant industry.

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    Souvla

    Souvla founder Charles Bililies

    It didn't take long for Souvla to make a name for itself in the fast-casual industry. Launched in San Francisco in 2014, the brand quickly became a favorite among those looking to spot future top performers across the category. How did it become such a cult favorite? Credit goes to founder and CEO Charles Bililies, whose fine-dining pedigree extended to Souvla, from its chef-forward menu to its all-Greek beverage menu and its elevated hospitality program.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Bililies explains why he left the fine-dining world for fast casual, and he tells us which two business components are the most critical to restaurant-industry success.

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    Your Pie

    Your Pie founder Drew French

    There may be bigger fast-casual pizza brands, but only Your Pie can claim to be the first in the category. The Athens, Georgia–based brand opened its first location in April 2008, when founder Drew French was just 23 years old and had recently graduated from the University of Georgia. In 11 years, Your Pie has grown to around 70 locations in 19 states, becoming an embedded fixture in its communities with Italian-inspired recipes, alcohol service, and a laid-back ambiance.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, French explains how he came up with the fast-casual pizza idea before everyone else, and tells us why he's OK with there being so many competitors in the category.

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    Marination

    Marination cofounder Roz Edison

    The food-truck trend that raced to popularity a decade ago had many exciting characteristics for foodservice entrepreneurs, among them the ability to enter the space at a relatively low cost and the opportunity to try out innovative menu ideas. That was exactly what appealed to Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton. The business partners, inspired by chef Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ truck in L.A., developed the idea for their own food truck at a dinner party in February 2009, and by June had hit the streets of Seattle with their truck concept, Marination. Leveraging Saxton's Hawaiian heritage, Marination serves a fusion menu that includes staples like Spam Sliders, a Kimchi Quesadilla, and a Pork Katsu Sandwich.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Edison describes how that simple dinner-party idea evolved into a popular Seattle mini-chain that now has a truck, three fast-casual brick-and-mortars, and a sister full-service concept, to boot.

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    MOD Pizza

    MOD Pizza cofounders Scott & Ally Svenson

    Ally and Scott Svenson didn't need to start another business. After selling their first brand to Starbucks and then helping a second foodservice company grow to acquisition, they could have retired and enjoyed life with their four sons. But the itch to build something returned, and in 2008 they launched the fast-casual brand MOD Pizza.

    What started as a "laboratory" in downtown Seattle for customized pizzas and enhanced hospitality has since become the largest fast-casual pizza chain in the world, with more than 400 locations in 70-plus markets. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, the Svensons describe the motivating factors for getting back into the foodservice industry and why they view their business as a people place, not a pizza place.

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    Torchy's Tacos

    Torchy's Tacos founder Michael Rypka

    By the time he turned 30, Mike Rypka boasted a resume that chefs three decades his senior could only dream of, having served as the head chef at organizations like the World Bank, MTV, Disney, and Dell. So when he decided to open his own project in Austin, Texas, in 2006, he surprised more than a few loved ones by opting to do a taco truck. 

    That taco truck, Torchy's Tacos, gradually became a beloved Austin institution, and now has more than 60 fast-casual locations, with "Damn Good Tacos" as its star. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Rypka tells the fascinating story of how Torchy's came to be—and he explains why a passion for your product must always be priority when launching your own restaurant.

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    Nékter Juice Bar

    Nekter Juice Bar cofounder Steve Schulze

    The last decade has witnessed an incredible rise in juice, smoothie, and açai bowl concepts, particularly as American consumers have turned their attention toward more nutritious and plant-forward dining options. Nekter Juice Bar was one of the first to capitalize on this movement, having opened its doors in 2010 and then franchising across the country.

    In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Nekter cofounder and CEO Steve Schulze offers a look inside the company's rise and explains how a fresh product, convenient model, and investment in franchising have helped it expand to more than 120 locations.

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    Doug Gifford

    Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol

    In 2015, Chipotle was the fast-casual restaurant industry's gold standard, with double-digit growth quarter after quarter. But with several cases of E. coli and norovirus in the fall of 2015, that all came crashing down. The company's comeback has been a bumpy ride to say the least, but new CEO Brian Niccol, who joined the company from Taco Bell in March 2018, has helped right the ship and get Chipotle back to growing again.

    In this exclusive conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Niccol explains how his experience from Taco Bell has helped inform his decisions at Chipotle, how the digital revolution is making the Chipotle experience easier than ever, and how he's preparing the company for bigger things ahead.

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    &pizza

    &pizza cofounder Michael Lastoria

    &pizza is a thriving fast-casual pizza shop that marches to the beat of its own drum. It designs its restaurants to reflect their local communities. Its employees get the company’s signature ampersand logo tattooed on themselves. It hosts free weddings in its shops every Pi Day (3/14).

    The beating heart of this 35-unit brand is cofounder and CEO Michael Lastoria. A former advertising professional, Lastoria has carefully constructed a brand and culture that represent far more than its signature pizza options. In this conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, Lastoria explains how he’s rethinking the fast-casual narrative—and inviting other entrepreneurs to steal from his playbook.

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    CAVA

    CAVA CEO Brett Schulman

    Childhood friends and first-generation Greek Americans Ted Xenohristos, Ike Grigoropoulos, and Dimitri Moshovitis first opened full-service restaurant Cava Mezze in Washington, D.C., in 2006. The fast-casual spinoff, CAVA, opened in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, in 2011 and has since grown to 75 locations across the country, bringing authentic Mediterranean flavors to American consumers in markets big and small. 

    In this interview with QSR editor Sam Oches, CEO Brett Schulman discusses CAVA's evolution, its big acquisition of Zoes Kitchen, and how the brand is transforming Americans' perceptions of Mediterranean flavors and ingredients.

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    Farm Burger

    Farm Burger cofounder George Frangos

    In the wake of successful brands like Five Guys and Shake Shack, America fell in love with the better-burger category, which serves high-quality beef and other upscale ingredients in a fast-casual format. Atlanta-based Farm Burger, though, strives to be a better better-burger concept. The 11-unit chain is deeply committed to local sourcing, having been launched as the fast-casual spinoff of full-service farm-to-table restaurant Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia.

    In this episode, Farm Burger cofounder George Frangos sits down with QSR editor Sam Oches to talk about this upscale concept and how it's stayed true to its farm-to-table mentality while scaling operations across the country.

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    Dog Haus

    Dog Haus cofounders Quasim Riaz, Hagop Giragossian, and Andre Vener (from left)

    Dog Haus has carved its own niche within the fast-casual restaurant industry. With a sports-bar vibe and a chef-designed menu, this brand has created an upscale, laid-back experience that's packaged in a franchise format. And while Dog Haus is expected to double in size in 2019, it's not all been smooth sailing since day one. 

    The three founders of Dog Haus—Quasim Riaz, Hagop Giragossian, and Andre Vener—sit down for a conversation with QSR editor Sam Oches, discussing the genesis of the business and the learning curve they've experienced while growing Dog Haus to more than 30 locations across the U.S.

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    Melissa Barnes / Melissa Barnes Photography

    Blaze Pizza cofounders Rick & Elise Wetzel

    Blaze Pizza started as a business plan scribbled on a Chipotle napkin back in 2011. At the time, Rick and Elise Wetzel were founders of the successful snack brand Wetzel's Pretzels, but they recognized an opportunity in the booming fast-casual model to turn pizza into a more personalized, lunch-driven category. Eight years later, Blaze Pizza has more than 300 locations and has been called the fastest-growing restaurant chain ever. 

    In this conversation with QSR magazine editor Sam Oches, the Wetzels explain the genesis of Blaze Pizza, the ongoing competition among fast-casual pizza brands, and how they are positioning the company for future success. 

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