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Tracking the new fast-casual pizza players

NRN maps out new pizza concepts that are gaining popularity in the U.S.

Over the past few years, a new breed of fast-casual pizza restaurant has emerged with plans for world — or at least national — domination.

These pizza concepts tend to use Chipotle Mexican Grill as their model: Guests can walk the service line and build their pizza from gourmet ingredients, typically for one price with unlimited toppings. The pizzas are then cooked in less than six minutes — some say less than three — and the result is often an individualized artisan-style pie that evokes much higher-end pizzerias.

There are variations among the concepts as well. Some use gas-fired 800-degree open-hearth ovens while others use impinger conveyor cookers. And some broaden their menus with salads, paninis and desserts.

All, however, appear to be in a big hurry to grow as quickly as possible to establish a bulkhead position in what is becoming an increasingly competitive niche within the pizza segment.

“There’s a bit of a land grab going on,” said Scott Svenson, a partner in MOD Pizza, based in Seattle. “People want to be seen as an innovator in the space.”

Interactive Map: New fast-casual pizza players across the country

Click through the map for more information about each concept.

A handful of newcomers in this fast-casual pizza space are gaining attention, and some are about to launch. They include concept 800 Degrees in Los Angeles; Fullerton, Calif.-based Pieology; Project Pie in Las Vegas; and Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza in Irvine, Calif.

Four chains, however, are leading the pack in terms of unit count: MOD Pizza, Pie Five, Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint and Top That! Find out more about these four concepts on the next page. 

MOD Pizza, Seattle

With the first unit open in 2008, MOD — which stands for Made On Demand — is often credited as one of the first to follow the Chipotle-like format. Created by James Markham with Ally and Scott Svenson, the brand focuses on artisan-style pizzas and an irreverent, nostalgic-but-modern setting with garage doors that open to patios and community tables.

MOD offers 11-inch pizzas for $6.88, and guests can choose from 10 pre-designed offerings or build their own. Other menu items include salads, craft beer, milkshakes and Hostess Ding Dongs for dessert.

The Svensons created and sold Seattle Coffee Co., as well as the Carluccio’s Caffes chain in the United Kingdom. Markham left MOD to create two more pizza brands with the niche: Pieology and, most recently, Project Pie. The concept currently has six units in the Pacific Northwest, with eight to 10 planned by the end of the year, and plans to double growth next year.

 Pie Five, The Colony, Texas

Owned by Pizza Inn Holdings, Pie Five debuted in June 2011 as a quicker-service variation on the sister Pizza Inn brand.

Pie Five offers guests 9-inch pies with thick- or thin-crust options for $6.49. Guests can choose from 11 pre-designed specialty pizzas or build from 21 toppings, seven sauces and four cheeses. Salads are also on the menu.

Charles Morrison, former chief executive of Pizza Inn Holdings, said the ordering model is the key driver. While pizza has always been a choose-your-toppings meal, the fast-casual format engages guests as they watch their fully customized pizza being prepared and cooked. But they can still get in and out quickly; pizzas are cooked in less than five minutes.

Six restaurants are currently open in Texas, with 10 planned by the end of the year.

Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint, Atlanta

Matt Andrew, who also founded and sold the Moe’s Southwest Grill chain, opened the first Uncle Maddio’s in January 2009. Nicknamed “Maddio,” Andrew now claims the title Chief Pizza Maker. He owns the franchisor, Integrity Brands LLC, but he still considers himself a franchisee, operating only one of the five current units (four others are franchise locations. He plans to open 17 more restaurants by the end of the year.

Like Chipotle, Uncle Maddio’s also emphasizes its ingredients, offering hormone-free meats and organic and local vegetables among its 47 toppings. The concept offers a broader menu with even more choice: Guests can choose traditional, whole wheat or gluten-free crusts in three sizes.

Twelve pre-designed pizza options start at $7.99 and build-your-own pizzas start at $6.99. The menu also includes salads, paninis and desserts from local purveyors, such as chocolate chip cookies, cannoli and brownies.

Top That!, Tulsa, Okla.

Founded by Jeff and Lori Walderich in 2010, Top That! also offers a wide range of options across the menu.

The 10-inch standard pizza is available for $6.99. Customers can choose from more than 40 toppings and eight sauces. Three types of crust are available — Italian white, multigrain or honey wheat — and while most crusts in the fast-casual category are thin and crispy, Top That’s pizzas are thicker, closer to that of New York pizza.

“We don’t want to claim to be artisan,” said Lori Walderich. “We’re just a pizza place that’s personal.”

Side salads are also on the menu, along with cream pies by the slice and other baked goods.

The six-unit chain has grown out of Oklahoma into Texas, and franchisees are planning units in Colorado and in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi. Four units are under construction and set to open this year.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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