“Sometimes an idea bites you,” she says. “This was one where I remember us leaving that lunch and saying, ‘We’re going to open a pizza place, aren’t we?’ And we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’”
They didn’t just open one pizza place, though; they opened two. The first two Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza locations came to life simultaneously in 2012 in Southern California, with one in Pasadena and one in Irvine. Rick Wetzel says he wanted “two at-bats” in getting the concept right, noting that the stores were identical but in different real estate environments.
Their timing was spot-on; fast casual was booming, and there were not yet many quick, affordable pizza options for lunch. Kitchen equipment had evolved to allow for made-to-order pizzas in a limited-service environment. Wetzel says a press gave Blaze the ability to quickly prepare dough without hand-tossing it, and a wood-fired oven that had been converted to gas “cracked the code” on how Blaze could scale an authentic cooking experience but still serve pizzas in 2–3 minutes.
Plus, he adds, the pizza industry was ready for change. The burger, chicken, sandwich, and Mexican categories had already “fired off” at the fast-casual level, leaving pizza as the next logical target. “As I look back on it, I think that our friction point was paying for toppings,” he says of why consumers were so eager to embrace fast-casual pizza. “That’s a big turn for the pizza category, that you put whatever you want on it and we’re not going to charge you for it.”
This being 2012, Chipotle was still king of the fast-casual category, the compass for other restaurant companies in how they could build premium, responsible business models. Wetzel says that brand became a beacon for Blaze Pizza, a company that he and his team could use as a filter for major decisions.
“We needed a true north for ourselves, or a way to answer our questions, and we would say, WWCD—what would Chipotle do?” he says. “At every turn, we’d say, ‘OK, if we’re going to pick an oven, what would Chipotle do? If Chipotle was going to make dough, what would they do? Would they use a frozen dough or would they use a fresh dough?”
Blaze’s team opted for the fresh dough. They also sprang for unprocessed ingredients, upscale beverage offerings, and unique store-design elements that rejected trade dress—all Chipotle hallmarks. They even installed a second make line in every kitchen because Chipotle had done so. It wasn’t obvious at the time what the restaurants would do with them, as delivery was not originally a part of the concept, but the third-party delivery boom of the last few years made the decision seem prescient.
An impressive C-suite rounded out the company, including chief culinary officer Bradford Kent, who was owner of Zagat-rated Los Angeles pizzeria Olio, and chief development officer Carolyn Canady, previously of Buffalo Wild Wings. High-profile investors came onboard early as well, like Maria Shriver, Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner, and basketball superstar LeBron James, who became spokesman and filmed the 2016 commercial (see sidebar for more).
With these pieces in place, Blaze had established the foundation for a fast-casual chain that has yet to see its ceiling. But Mizes, who started at Blaze in 2013 after a career building brands like Freebirds World Burrito, Jamba Juice, and Noah’s New York Bagels, says there’s still work to do.
“A brand is like a piece of stone that you’re constantly sculpting to ultimately create the finished product,” he says. “You don’t ever get to the end line, but the point is you’re constantly working the core of the brand, yet adapting to meet what’s happening in society.”