In late 2017 Pieology quietly opened an R&D restaurant to experiment with new menu items and modern decor features that would eventually be implemented throughout the chain, one of the first build-your-own pizza concepts in Southern California.
But in a major shift in strategy, the Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based fast-casual brand is scrapping the centralized testing approach.
Pieology Pizzeria R&D in Aliso Viejo, Calif. closed July 2, the company told Nation’s Restaurant News. The fast-casual restaurant, which sported a Marra Forni Italian pizza oven in an open kitchen, was located in a large suburban retail center peppered with national chains such as Smashburger, Chili’s Grill & Bar, and Panera Bread.
In a statement provided exclusively to NRN, the 144-unit chain said it is shuttering the location and redirecting its efforts on franchising. The brand said menu testing will shift to restaurants throughout the system where it has found “great success” with franchisees.
“This allows us to expand our new product testing into multiple markets to gauge and evaluate consumer preferences within the fast-casual pizza market that will allow us to stay on the cutting edge of product innovation,” the company said. “As we continue to test new offerings, we look forward to introducing Pieology lovers to new flavors and menu items.”
Along with the closure of the R&D restaurant, the chain has also lost two high-level leaders.
COO Clay Sanger and certified pizzaiolo Glenn Cybulski have exited the company. Both were charged with reinvigorating the brand amid a heated battle among fast-casual pizza concepts.
Pieology said Sanger and Cybulski, an award-winning pizzaiolo, “played important roles in helping Pieology evolve its offerings and expand into new markets over the past few years. Both Clay and Glenn have moved on to new opportunities outside of Pieology.”
Sanger’s position has not been replaced at this time, Pieology said.
The company, founded by Carl Chang in 2011, is focusing on franchising as the brand has fallen behind category leaders MOD Pizza and Blaze Pizza, in terms of sales, and unit growth.
For the year ended December 2017, Pieology reported U.S. sales of $111 million, an 18.8 percent increase from the year before. Of its 144 units, 111 are franchise locations, according to NRN’s Top 200 data research.
By comparison, Seattle-based MOD Pizza was the fastest growing chain in NRN’s Top 200, in terms of systemwide sales, with 80-percent year-over-year growth. That brought its U.S. systemwide sales total to $270 million for the fiscal year ended December 2017, just $9 million behind its closest rival, Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza.
Blaze was ranked second in the Top 200 in terms of sales gains with 50.8 percent year-over-year growth.
MOD Pizza, Pieology and Blaze — founded in 2008, 2011 and 2012 respectively — have been fighting for territorial dominance throughout the West.
Both Pieology and Blaze have also turned to NBA champions and sports rivals to promote their brands. LeBron James was an early investor in Blaze Pizza, while Kevin Durant invested in Pieology last year.
Underscoring the intensity of the rivalry, Chang said some of the R&D restaurant’s first customers last year were scouts from Blaze Pizza.
And what they saw was a vastly different Pieology, nicknamed the Chipotle of pizzerias when it first opened seven years ago. Chang had previously said that the brands were all looking alike. The R&D store was meant to differentiate Pieology from the pack.
The restaurant featured a 20-tap craft beer bar, pendant lighting, warm tones, brick veneer walls, bar-style seating, and an exhibition kitchen. The company had hired pizzaiolo Cybulski to introduce higher-quality signature pizzas made in a premium Italian oven.
But they quickly learned that cooking style didn’t work.
“This type of gas fired oven would not be successful within our brand. It did not work as well with the signature house-made doughs, and affected our ability to produce enough pizzas at high volume locations,” the company said. “Given this key learning, the oven will be sold.”
Going forward, culinary testing will still occur at an accelerated level using Pieology’s franchise partners.
“By leveraging the over 100 Pieology locations across the country, the brand can get new products, equipment and processes in front of guests today and allow for testing and rollouts in a variety of markets,” the company said in a statement. “This is a key benefit in having a franchise system supported by operators who bring a wealth of experience and knowledge from years working with multi-unit restaurant brands.”
Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]
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