There’s no better showcase for cheese than pizza. And pizza, cheese and all, has gotten a healthy makeover in the most unlikely of places: New Orleans.

“If we can sell a healthier pizza in the least healthy city in America, that’s a pretty good validation of our product,” says Naked Pizza cofounder and “branding architect” Robbie Vitrano. “People here know food and it must be tasty, first and foremost.”

Launched in 2006 in a 490-square-foot building in an area that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina, Naked Pizza set out to take a popular fast food and make it healthy and delicious, all while creating a profitable business model.

The carryout and delivery business proved popular among New Orleans residents struggling to put their lives and city back together in the months following Katrina, and by the end of 2009, Naked Pizza had secured financing from both the Foxborough, Massachusetts–based Kraft Group and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. The company then launched the franchise end of the business and now has 96 units under development. Vitrano says the forecast is for 1,000 Naked Pizza locations in the next five years.

The first group of Naked Pizza stores to open will be in Boulder, Colorado; Lexington, Kentucky; South Florida; New York; and Arkansas.

“We wanted a snapshot of every demographic in the U.S.,” Vitrano says.

He says Naked Pizza received more than 3,000 inquiries for franchises and is actively vetting them.

“We are looking at opportunities both domestically and internationally,” Vitrano says.

Naked Pizza calls itself “simply the world’s healthiest pizza.” In fact, “World’s Healthiest Pizza” was the concept’s original name, but that was dropped because, Vitrano says, they want people to fall in love with the taste of the pizza first, and then come to appreciate that it is healthy.

Vitrano says the meats are all-natural and the dough, sauce, and cheese are free of additives, preservatives, colorants, or chemicals of any kind. But it goes beyond what’s not there to some good things that have been added. Naked Pizza’s proprietary crust

recipe contains 12 whole grains, nuts, and roots. It is fortified with prebiotics—a high-grade fiber—as well as heat-resistant probiotics, which are healthy bacteria similar to those found in yogurt. That mixture of multi-grain flours and whole grains increases the levels of plant proteins in the crust. Adding to the healthy factor on the menu is the cheese.

“We use all-natural, part-skim mozzarella,” Vitrano says. “It’s straightforward cheese, we’re not adding anything synthetic.

“We believe in cheese,” he says. “We think cheese is a good thing, especially the all-natural, part-skim, because it’s a little lower fat. We’re not afraid of all fat, but lower is good.”

The cheese is also used in the concept’s Bayou Breadstixx.

“Our breadsticks are made with the same dough mix as the pizza crust, then we add a mozzarella and herb mix on top and they are served with marinara sauce,” Vitrano says. “It’s a great cheesy breadstick made with a diversity of whole grains that are good for you.”

Vitrano says 30–50 percent of Naked Pizza orders include a $4.95 order of breadsticks.

Among the pizzas themselves, one of the most popular choices is the Omnivore, topped with pepperoni, hamburger, ham, bell peppers, mushrooms, and black olives. Prices range from $11.25 for the 10-inch small to $14.25 for the 12-inch medium, and $16.25 for the 14-inch large.

Also popular is the Superbiotic, a veggie pie covered in artichoke, spinach, arugula, bell peppers, mushrooms, garlic, onions, and cilantro. Prices for the Superbiotic are $10.99 for a small, $13.99 for a medium, and $15.99 for a large.

Vitrano says Naked Pizza strives to keep prices in line with the most popular pizza chains. It keeps real estate and labor costs down by being a carryout and delivery concept like Papa John’s or Domino’s, but has a take-and-bake option like Papa Murphy’s, too.

“We have to do everything as efficiently, conveniently, and affordably as the pizza most people eat,” he says. “Our operational costs, both labor and food costs, are almost exactly in line with the others.”

Naked Pizza

Owners: Robbie Vitrano,
Jeff Leach, Randy Crochet, and
Brock Fillinger

HQ: New Orleans

Year started: 2006

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total units: 1

Franchise units: 96 in development

He says accessibility is the key to selling healthy pizza.

“We want to start a grassroots health movement,” Vitrano says. “We can only do that if people have access to an affordable product.”

Naked Pizza communicates mostly through social media, which means lower marketing costs. Despite having only one store in early 2010, it already has almost 8,000 followers on Twitter and 1,300 Facebook fans. Its LivNaked blog provides general content about health and wellness and is read by both loyal customers and people nationwide who have never had a taste of Naked Pizza.

“Social media gives us the opportunity to inform and engage with people,” Vitrano says. “We’re a social media company that happens to sell pizza—pizza is the touch point that starts conversations.”

Emerging Concepts, Growth, Menu Innovations, Pizza, Story, Naked Pizza