The lunch rush should be over at the contemporary fast casual on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, and yet the place is buzzing. A queue of customers slowly marches its way down a make line while employees flutter around to the closely arranged tables, delivering food and clearing dishes.
At a table in the back, an unassuming trio sit down for a late lunch. Crewmembers who swing by treat them no differently than the other customers, and probably don’t even know there’s reason to; they probably don’t realize that the three middle-aged guests are in charge of the place. That they built from the ground up a company that’s been called the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.” That two years prior, they’d welcomed the world’s most famous athlete into this very store to film a commercial for the brand.
(Listen to the Wetzels first-hand in the first episode of our new podcast, “Fast Forward,” available to stream below.)
No, there’s nothing flashy about Rick and Elise Wetzel, founders of Blaze Pizza, or Jim Mizes, their hand-picked CEO. But that hasn’t kept the three of them from quietly building one of the most formidable fast-casual companies of the last couple decades.
And now, just a few months after opening Blaze’s 300th location—and just over six years after launch—the leadership team is kicking things into high gear, fortifying the brand so that it can be more efficient as it scales. After all, they’re quick to point out that many brands make it to 300 units, but far fewer achieve 700 locations and beyond.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose here. There’s so much to do,” Rick Wetzel says an hour before lunch, in a conference room at the company’s headquarters a few blocks from the restaurant. “It is moving really, really fast. And I can’t even imagine where this thing is going to be in five years.”
Cracking the code
It may seem cliché, but Blaze Pizza’s origin story really can be traced back to a napkin with the scribbles of a business plan. It was 2011, and the Wetzels—cofounders of the successful snack chain Wetzel’s Pretzels—were looking for a quick lunch spot for a business meeting, craving pizza in particular. But when they realized that their only options were greasy spoons with reheated slices, the pair chose to hold the meeting at Chipotle instead.
Elise Wetzel says she and Rick watched as the lunch crowd moved through Chipotle’s assembly line, and the “a-ha moment” struck: This could work for pizza, they thought. They grabbed a napkin and sketched out how it might work.
“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.”
A bona fide brand
Blaze’s success has so far been unprecedented. Its 200 locations in its first five years earned it the designation from Technomic as the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.” Its 300th store opened in Miami in November, and the company says it will open a new restaurant every five or six days this year, with the 500th location probably arriving by 2021.
Wetzel says Blaze’s average unit volume today is about $1.4 million, which is more than all of the six biggest national pizza chains. And the brand is clearly resonating with customers; a 2018 Harris EquiTrend study of more than 77,000 U.S. consumers found that Blaze was America’s favorite pizza chain.
Indeed, Blaze Pizza is no startup. It’s a bona fide brand that has to evolve to act like the national chain that it is.
“The world changed while we’ve grown from zero to 300, and the world changes a lot more as we go from 300 to 600,” Mizes says. “How do you continue to address the waves of technology? The demographic of the workforce? The importance of convenience and value that is clearly impacting everyone in the foodservice industry?”
The key, he says, is to ensure that Blaze is effective at the store level but efficient nationwide, particularly for the sake of the franchisees. At the close of 2018, Blaze was in 42 states with 55 franchise groups, and Mizes says this forces the company to think much more about efficiency with its supply chain. He also points to media as being an important part of this national strategy. To date, Blaze has been focused on effective local-store marketing and PR, but now has to behave as a national brand through media purchasing and a broader social media initiative.
As for the technology piece of it, Blaze is leaning into new innovations. The company is exploring how it can use technology to speed up the ordering process, particularly during the lunch daypart. It just released a new app that will help track guest usage and enhance the ordering experience—especially for younger consumers.
“[It’s about] being out in front of leveraging technology to enhance the guest experience, especially for millennials and Gen Z, where it’s all about convenience,” Mizes says. “We’re going to make it more convenient for them, and more convenient for our teams within the restaurants to serve them.”
Case in point: delivery. Because Blaze was intended to be more of a dine-in concept—not off-premises-driven like its competitors in the quick-serve space, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s—the company did not include delivery as part of the original business plan. But in the wake of the third-party delivery boom, Blaze partnered with the major services and integrated its platform through Olo for easier app-based ordering. That second make line the company installed while mirroring Chipotle can finally pay its dues; Wetzel says delivery could help bump AUV up to around $2 million.
There are more irons in Blaze’s fire that could open even more doors for the brand down the road; for example, the Wetzels and Mizes tease that the company is exploring drive-thru models. For now, though, Elise Wetzel says Blaze’s most useful tool in conquering the pizza category is filling in its markets with more stores.
“Frankly, most people in this country have not yet walked through a door of a Blaze Pizza,” she says. “We are still very much a young, emerging brand. While awareness is growing, the opportunity to open more restaurants helps us build awareness to get our brand out there.”
Riding the wave
In a vacuum, Blaze Pizza’s success would be among the most startling developments in chain restaurant history. The speed with which it developed restaurants, the talent it brought onboard, and the intensity with which it entrenched itself into customers’ lives are unparalleled.
But this is the restaurant industry, and in a post-Chipotle, post-foodie world, hardly any concept stumbles into success. Fast-casual pizza followed a template designed by other categories before it, notably better burgers and frozen yogurt, wherein a popular food trend leads to a gold rush among companies looking to stake a claim in the next big thing.
That is to say: Blaze rode a wave to the top, and it shares that wave with dozens of other fast-casual pizza brands. In Southern California alone, there are headquarters for Pieology, PizzaRev, MidiCi, Pizza Studio, 800 Degrees, and The Pizza Press. Look further and you’ll see Your Pie, Rapid Fired Pizza, Firenza Pizza, &pizza, Uncle Maddio’s, and Pie Five—along with countless others—all giving their own spin to a similar model as Blaze, with varied success.
“What we’ve come to find is that it is important that when a guest walks into the restaurant, that there is something that they haven’t seen before, that they haven’t taken a picture of before,” — Elise Wetzel.
Then there’s MOD Pizza, the only other fast-casual pizza concept to crack 300 units (it recently opened No. 400). Former Starbucks executive Scott Svenson founded the Seattle-based chain in 2008, and ever since Blaze joined the fray, the two have run neck-and-neck for fast-casual pizza supremacy.
The competition isn’t lost on the Wetzels. “By the time we showed up, there were already a lot of other fast-casual concepts in the field—not just pizza, but a lot of different categories,” Rick Wetzel says. “So our world has always been ferociously more competitive. It’s built our DNA a little differently.”
That DNA, he adds, is one that learns how to “evolve continuously,” which has led to decisions like adding different crusts to the menu and developing the $5 Lunch Hack deal, in which customers can get a half pizza with as many toppings as they’d like for $5. Its DNA was also franchising; unlike MOD, the Wetzels built Blaze to be a franchise company from day one, and designed systems that anticipated 1,000 locations or more. When the fast-casual pizza explosion became a mad grab for real estate, Blaze’s impressive array of franchise partners were best positioned to pounce.
Darren Tristano, CEO and founder of consultancy Foodservice Results, says that though the pizza market is already robust—about $40–$42 billion in annual sales, he says—the fast-casual pizza market was an underdeveloped niche that has been able to thrive during lunch and on weekdays—traditionally slow times for the quick-serve pizza chains.
The competition comes with a silver lining for Blaze, he adds: It creates awareness and builds demand for a fast-casual pizza product. And with Blaze embedding itself in most communities in America, it’s prepared to capitalize on that demand for the long-term.
Plus, the competition is pushing Blaze to operate at a high level. “They’re trying to differentiate themselves from MOD specifically, but in trying to raise the bar even higher, they continue to differentiate themselves from other brands in [quick service], like Pizza Hut and Domino’s,” Tristano says. “I think that is going to help with a generation that’s looking for quality and freshness.”
That same generation also looks for quality and freshness from other foodservice businesses, and the Blaze team says they view all of food as their competition, from quick serves like McDonald’s to casual chains like Applebee’s and even grocery stores like Whole Foods. And with nearly all of these experiences now available for delivery at the press of a smartphone button, Rick Wetzel says, it levels the competitive playing field.
This has forced Blaze to keep playing offense—and pizza fans across the country are better off for it.
“What we’ve come to find is that it is important that when a guest walks into the restaurant, that there is something that they haven’t seen before, that they haven’t taken a picture of before,” Elise Wetzel says. “I used to think, well, we have 40 ingredients, so that’s a million different pizzas you could make, why would we need to innovate? But actually, as we’ve evolved and changed, that’s something that we’ve come to find was very important and valued by our guests.”