Shawn Thompson took on the role of CEO at Pieology Pizzeria two and a half years ago. His first move was pumping the brakes on the company’s expansion plans. It marked a departure for the former Restaurant Brands International executive, who spent his career up until that point growing chains like Burger King and Tim Hortons through franchising.

“This was a brand that hadn’t really evolved too terribly much since its inception,” he says. “The markets it entered after 2016 or so hadn’t been as successful. Instead of trying to continue on at the same pace, taking two steps forward and one step back, we wanted to fix it, get the model and the economics behind the model right, and then go back to aggressive growth with the right partners.”

That’s a familiar story for fast-casual pizza concepts. The category burst onto the scene in a big way in the early 2010s. Brands like Pieology, Blaze Pizza, MOD Pizza, and others provided guests the experience of creating their own customized pies as they moved through a line, akin to building a burrito bowl at Chipotle. Positioned as a higher-quality alternative to traditional quick-service fare, the category turned one of America’s all-time favorite shareable dinners into a lunch option for individual meal occasions. It was red-hot until the pandemic entered the picture and exposed some fundamental cracks in the model.

Fast casuals of all types felt the sting of their differentiation when drive-thru and delivery became pandemic heroes. Tech innovation, fresh asset strategies, and on-trend menu innovation helped get traffic back on track and continue to provide a roadmap for success.

“You haven’t seen fast-casual pizza follow the same channels of digital evolution and product evolution,” Thompson says. “It just hasn’t changed as much as the world has, and due to some of those missteps, growth has really stagnated within this space.”

The category seems to be shrinking as smaller players consolidate or exit the fray and larger chains grapple with a changing landscape, but the next chapter is beginning to come into focus, he adds. A growing number of brands have made leadership changes with an eye toward ramping up growth. Pieology, Blaze, and MOD have all named new CEOs within the past two years.

“There’s a change in direction with brands bringing in people with different skill sets from other spaces within quick service and fast casual,” Thompson says. “What you’re seeing in the entire space is a lot of the first steps into what the next evolution of fast-casual pizza is going to be. I think there’s going to be a new path set forward over the next year or two.”

For Pieology, that evolution starts with the menu. The company teamed up with expert pizzaiolo Vito Iacopelli to reformulate its pizza dough and develop a new recipe for its house-made red sauce. Those updates rolled out last year alongside open-fire ovens and a redesigned menu featuring more premium ingredients and “special flavor innovations” like the Mushroom Truffle Pizza and the Calabrese Pizza made with Mike’s Hot Honey. It followed that up earlier this year by expanding beyond pizza with a new build-your-own calzone platform.

“We changed everything from our dough to our sauce, our cheese, and our core proteins like pepperoni and sausage to improve the quality of each one,” Thompson says. “Those foundational changes have allowed us to innovate new products, which is important because we need to be in a new playing field with different offerings for our guests.”

The changes don’t stop there. With franchising on pause, Pieology is reevaluating its entire playbook and making changes to just about every part of the business, from the digital footprint to operations and prototype design.

“We canceled some of the markets we were going to enter while we focused on getting our operating model optimized,” Thompson says. “Our biggest focus since then has been figuring out how we evolve into this new world and what our model is going to be in the future.”

The company brought in a new app development team and beefed up its loyalty program with a new initiative called Pies and Perks. It offers guests a free salad, cookie, or dessert with the purchase of a build-your-own pizza.

“The main thing we’re tracking from a numerical perspective is how we’re doing on our digital channels,” Thompson says. ”We’re starting to see really, really aggressive growth and an increase in that funnel of users into those, so that’s another foundation we’ll be able to grow on.”

Efforts to optimize the model are unfolding in a couple of ways. Pieology had 19 distribution centers for around 120 stores when Thompson first came on board. He closed a few of those facilities as well as a handful of small outlier markets to tighten things up. He also bought back several restaurants from franchisees. They’ve been turned into corporate stores that now serve as a testing ground for operational improvements. Additionally, the company started working with Bradford Kent, the cofounder and culinary mastermind behind Blaze Pizza, who parted ways with the brand last year. He’s steering the ship on future menu development and helping Pieology unlock efficiency from a labor and production standpoint.

Blaze Pizza exterior.
Blaze was founded in 2011 in Pasadena, California, by Rick and Elise Wetzel.

“We’re doing some slight modifications to see how we can make existing stores more delivery- and carryout-focused, and we’re working on a remodel that essentially optimizes the flow of operations to hopefully eliminate some unnecessary labor within the back of the house,” Thompson says.

Those changes will lead to a smaller footprint down the line. Later this year or early next year, Pieology will start looking at moving into a more compact prototype that caters to its growing strength in digital channels.

“We need to focus on what our model is going to be in the future, because the model today isn’t digital enough, and it’s too high from a square footage standpoint,” Thompson says. “When you go from a 100 percent dine-in business to more of a 60 percent dine-in business, that really starts to change the footprint that you need and the real estate that you need. It’s going to be closer to 1,500 square feet, versus the 2,500-square-foot box that you see in a lot of places today.”

&pizza is undergoing some major changes under fresh leadership, too. Mike Burns, the former COO of Pizza Inn and Pie Five, took over as CEO of the East Coast pizza chain last year. His first order of business was getting back to the playful and edgy ethos that helped the brand build a cult-like following in the Mid-Atlantic over the years. That extends to every touchpoint, from the snarky social media presence to the atmosphere within the restaurants, where the music is cranked up and employees are allowed to flaunt their multi-colored hair or showcase their facial piercings.

“When &pizza started in 2012, the differentiator was that it’s a cool pizza place with a fun environment,” Burns says. “We got a little too corporate at some point. You get to 50 stores and it starts feeling like a chain restaurant, which it is, but we don’t want the stores to feel like that.”

The company earlier this year renamed its popular dill pickle pizza to “the Dickle,” a move that generated significant marketing buzz and social media engagement. This spring it brought back its mushroom-based Moonstruck pie. The Farmer’s Daughter pizza, featuring a fried egg, sausage slices, and whole strips of bacon, is set to return soon. Those items were cut because they were operationally unfriendly but now have been tweaked and are easier to handle.

Tighter operations are a key area of focus for &pizza. It recently centralized oversight in its Washington, D.C., headquarters, led by a new vice president of operations. It also added more people into the field. Previously, each district manager was responsible for around 15 or 20 restaurants. That made it hard for them to have their fingerprints on each store. Five employers were internally promoted to the role so no one’s coverage is bigger than eight stores.

The company also asked seasoned operators about the biggest pain points from a speed and productivity standpoint to find ways to cut down on complexity and reduce the number of steps employees have to take. That resulted in some adjustments to the way the backline and frontline are organized. A major throughput unlock came this spring with the introduction of self-order kiosks across the entire system. Burns says the technology is helping with throughput, labor, and the overall in-store experience.

“We’re seeing momentum from stores just running better,” he says. “Transaction counts have steadily improved, and we’re starting to see more stores comp positive because we have the right people there.”

&pizza streamlined its tech stack to free up capital for the revamped operations department. When Burns arrived, the digital platforms were powered by a robust proprietary system. However, maintaining that system demanded substantial time and effort from a small IT team. Burns decided to prioritize the core business of selling pizza over further development and potential sale of the technology.

“It was like having a Ferrari, but not having a mechanic to work on it,” Burns says. “I had to make a decision. Do we want to be a tech company, or do we want to be a pizza chain? Do we want to have 15 people in-house maintaining it every day, or do we want to run lean with a couple of bodies that can manage and maintain things through vendors?”

He opted to outsource the tech needs, partnering with vendors to overhaul the brand’s POS system, website, and mobile app. That led to the creation of a new three-tiered loyalty program called the Dead President Club. There’s a bronze tier named after George Washington and a silver tier named after Abraham Lincoln. Benjamin Franklin sits atop the rewards system in the gold tier, where members receive a birthday party package with 10 free pizzas and 10 drinks, plus one free pizza per month and a VIP Benjamin T-shirt. Franklin wasn’t a president, but that’s just another example of &pizza’s irreverent personality shining through. The app features artwork depicting the Founding Father with an ampersand tattoo. Lincoln has a mohawk, and Washington has a grill.

The new loyalty program aims to boost engagement with personalized rewards, allowing &pizza to tailor perks based on individual buying habits while venturing beyond the standard discounts and pizza-for-points system that many chains use. Burns says the tech upgrades and loyalty program are directing more traffic into digital channels and improving the off-premises part of the business, which currently mixes at around 60 percent. That’s a far cry from where the brand was just a few years ago.

“Fast-casual pizza really got crushed during the pandemic, while the big guys like Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s thrived because their businesses were already set up for delivery,” he says. “We spent a lot of time pre-COVID focusing on the environment and the customer experience in the restaurant. Even though we had a robust in-house tech stack, we were slow to adapt to off-premises.”

The first store under the new leadership will open later this year with more set to follow in 2025. &pizza took its first steps into franchising last year when it refranchised a handful of locations in New Jersey. That’s the direction it’s heading in going forward. With the growth in off-premises enabling smaller boxes and the streamlined operations driving down labor requirements, the brand is confident in its ability to grow via franchising. It’s just a matter of telling that story. The company has internal team members who can help with real estate and is bringing in an external group to help with franchise development.

“You could spin everything we’re doing as a big shift or adding a bunch of new stuff,” Burns says. “Really, though, what we’re doing is going back to our roots, being unapologetic about who we are, and finding the right people to help move this thing forward.”

Fast Casual, Pizza, Special Reports, Story, &pizza, Blaze Pizza, Pieology Pizzeria