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    The Next Wave of Fast-Casual Pizza

  • With a saturated build-your-own market, here’s how pizza brands are differentiating themselves from competitors.

    Mountain Mike’s
    Mountain Mike’s has been around for 40-plus years and offers a more traditional alternative to the booming fast-casual pizza space.

    In recent years, pizza has experienced a build-your-own boom. While guests have always been encouraged to customize toppings on menus, fast-casual brands like Blaze Pizza and MOD Pizza—with 331 and 435 units, respectively—have emphasized that model with efficient assembly lines and high-quality ovens that allow customers the opportunity to build premium pizzas in real time in sleek, millennial-geared stores.

    But the competition in the fast-casual pizza space has been stiff. "The wave of fast-casual, build-your-own-pizza brands will slow since the market is now saturated with them," says Carol DeNembo, vice president of marketing at 207-unit Mountain Mike's Pizza, which has been around for over 40 years.

    As build-your-own brands experience more competition, they are looking for ways to differentiate themselves through chef-driven menu items and LTOs, as well as more customizable ingredients that give guests everything from premium, authentic meats and cheeses to vegan, low-carb, and gluten-free options.

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    Newk's Eatery includes build-your-own pizza next to its menu of sandwiches, salads, and soups. Chris Newcomb, CEO and cofounder, says exciting flavors are a must to stand out from the pizza pack. "People are always looking for fresh takes on classic flavors, so non-tomato-based sauces are a great way to explore unique flavor profiles outside of the traditional Italian-sourced recipes you expect for pizzas," he says. Newk's solution is menu items like the Newk's "Q" Pizza, first made by a long-term hourly partner as a spinoff of the Newk's "Q" sandwich, which uses the brand's signature white barbecue sauce.

    Brian Figler, culinary manager at MOD, believes customers are looking for approachable ingredients combined in interesting ways on pizza. "Obviously all of our pizzas are customizable, but our customers do look forward to our Flash MOD offerings, as they feature unique combinations that they may not think about themselves," he says. A recent Flash Mod called Fred includes house-roasted pineapple, red sauce, Canadian bacon, shredded mozzarella, red onions, and a swirl of tangy barbecue sauce.

    Even though the demand remains for classic pizza ingredients and toppings, customers are more discerning about the quality of those classics, like pepperoni. "At other chains, the pepperoni lies flat, … a clear sign that their customers are not getting the real thing," Mountain Mike's DeNembo says. The brand's old-world pepperoni is made using a natural casing that curls up into a teacup shape when cooked.


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    Brad Kent, chief culinary officer at Blaze, thinks more customers are going to ask for natural, clean ingredients like that pepperoni. And many brands, including Blaze, are thinking about authenticity and how to translate that to pizza menus. Kent calls his goal "culinary authenticity"—menu items that taste good and clearly have a chef's culinary touch behind them.

    Simone Falco, chef and founder of SIMÒ Pizza in New York, thinks authentic Italian ingredients like buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto, and authentic pizza styles like Neapolitan, will always reign supreme. At his fast casual, he serves pies like Margherita, Prosciutto e Funghi, and the trending Cacio e Pepe flavor, made with 100 percent Italian ingredients, in 90 seconds. "I feel that after going too far in experimenting, people will start looking again for more traditional programs that are well executed," he says.

    Francis Garcia and Sal Basille, the stars behind "Pizza Masters" on the Cooking Channel and the cofounders of Artichoke Basille's Pizza, see the market bending toward fresh and local ingredients, but also authentic, regional styles like Detroit-style and New Haven–style. In fact, they're betting on this trend so much that they opened a Detroit-style shop in New York called Lions & Tigers & Squares serving thick-crust, rectangular pizzas. "We fell in love with Detroit-style pies and decided to open a shop in New York dedicated to them," Garcia says. "We imagine others will begin to follow suit as consumers want more regional varieties in their hometowns and local area."

    Despite these initiatives, however, build-your-own and traditional pizza brands alike have not lost sight of what the trend was all about: guests desiring customization. With more guests exploring diets like Whole30 or requiring dietary restrictions for allergy or intolerance purposes, brands are quick to meet demands with new crusts, plant-based protein toppings, and other alternative options. Falco at SIMÒ even offers a gluten-free crust that has been very popular in the shop, and he is working on a no-to-low-carb crust as well.

    Similarly, Blaze has a low-carb crust in the works that has six net carbs per pizza. "We want to make sure people on low-carb diets are still able to eat one of their favorite foods: pizza," Kent says. The brand plans to offer more cheese alternatives and plant-based toppings—the team recently codeveloped one with a secret supplier.

    While pizza was the original delivery food, the build-your-own brands have been banking on the in-store experience. But, with off-premises dining continuing to rise across the industry, build-your-own brands are also developing menus with more delivery orders in mind.

    Blaze, for instance, added a large-format pizza designed for third-party delivery. "As the trend and demand further develops for third-party delivery options, we dialed in our crust to better handle the rigors of third-party deliveries in an effort to better delight guests and capture our share of that booming market segment," Kent says.

    A commendable move, as the newest wave in the pizza category is delivery-only brands without brick-and-mortar shops—brands like Zume Pizza and Pizzaoki, which both launched in California. The menus at these new-wave establishments are classic mixed with fun. For example, Pizzaoki, which was founded by DJ Steve Aoki, creates a brand voice in its names like the Just Hold On cheese pizza, Mayhem supreme pizza, and Neon Future white pizza.