The fast-casual segment has been one of the brightest spots for the restaurant industry the last few years, with majors players like Chipotle drawing cash-strapped customers away from casual and fine dining with strong quality but a lower price point.

Now one industry veteran wants to ride the success of the fast-casual industry by introducing it to one America’s biggest food passions: pizza.

Matt Andrew, founder and chief pizza maker of Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s, says his brand is going to be the first true fast-casual pizza chain. Andrew, the former cofounder and president of Moe’s Southwest Grill, says Uncle Maddio’s growth will mirror the explosive growth of Moe’s over the last decade.

“We didn’t invent the fast-casual burrito business at Moe’s; Chipotle had been doing it, and Qdoba had been doing it,” Andrew says. “What Moe’s capitalized on was nobody was doing it in the South. We were able to establish the brand in the South and Southeast.

“What [Uncle Maddio’s] is doing that is materially different is that we are the Chipotle, we are the Qdoba; we’re the guys who are actually creating the category. That’s why it’s more exciting. We could end up being the Chipotle of pizza.”

The first Uncle Maddio’s opened in Atlanta in January 2009. Andrew and his crew worked for a year and a half perfecting the model before franchising the concept in mid-2010. The brand already has agreements for 30 units, 10 of which should open this year.

Like Moe’s, Uncle Maddio’s will establish itself in the South before moving on to other markets. Signed agreements include deals for stores in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

Andrew says the chain hopes to sign deals for 100 new stores in 2011, and he aims to have 500 units open in 10 years—at which time he says the brand will enter “Phase 2” of growth and expand outside the South.

“The South in general, from the demographic and population perspective, is a great opportunity for a brand to emerge from,” Andrew says. “We’re excited about being in the South, where we feel like there aren’t pizza slice shops on every corner like in New York.”

Uncle Maddio’s menu is centered on a build-your-own-pizza model. While customers can order specialty pies—as well as salads and subs—the crux of the Uncle Maddio’s concept is the prep station where customers can choose among three crusts, six sauces, 27 veggie toppings, and 15 meat toppings. Many of the ingredients are “fresher” and “healthier,” Andrew says, offering a premium quality over typical fast food pizza joints.

Though the pizza category is populated with several brands, Andrew points to what Five Guys has done for the burger category as proof that an improvement on an old favorite can be exactly what customers are looking for.

“It’s been proven that people want an alternative,” he says. “They don’t necessarily want the fast food pizza, and they sometimes don’t have time for the casual-dining and sit-down, $30 pizza experience that the big-box guys deliver. There are occasions for each, but nobody was really filling that niche of fresh [pizza], made from scratch in five minutes for $6–7.”

Andrew is counting on experienced operators to establish the Uncle Maddio’s brand, and says the company is partnering with “guys who own three units of this, five units of that—household name kind of brands.” He says the experience and capital these operators possess will help Uncle Maddio’s hit the ground running.

“Especially at the beginning of building the brand, it’s very important that you have great operators who are going to represent your brand in those communities,” he says. “A solid floor plan makes for a good, long-term structure. You’ve got to get that foundation down.”

By Sam Oches

Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Fast Casual, Growth, Menu Innovations, News, Pizza, Uncle Maddio's