“I think, ultimately, in the United States, 800 Degrees is probably a 200-unit concept,” he said.

Regardless of how much each chain hopes to grow, Rick Wetzel said he thinks success as a national pizza brand could come down to a fight for real estate.

“It’s turning into a land grab, so it’s important to get out there now,” he said.

Favorite food

In January 2012, 800 Degrees was the first assembly line pizza place to open in Los Angeles. Rival local fast-casual pizza companies, though, insist that they were each developing their ideas long before opening.

The idea was that diners could walk along a counter and choose their crust, sauce and toppings then have their personal pizzas flash-baked by the time they reached the cash register.

But what could have inspired the idea for so many people simultaneously?

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago market research firm Technomic Inc., said it was only a matter of time before pizza made its debut in the increasingly popular fast-casual restaurant category that Denver chain Chipotle Mexican Grill made famous. That’s because with about 72,000 pizzerias nationwide – a $36.8 billion industry – pizza is America’s favorite food.

“Pizza is an area where the fast-casual segment has been underdeveloped,” he said. “Now, with the technology available to make three-minute pizzas, it’s just time.”

Most traditional pizza restaurants use lower-temperature ovens that can take at least 10 minutes to cook a pizza.

Blaze, 800 Degrees and PizzaRev all use open-hearth ovens that reach extreme temperatures. Blaze and PizzaRev bake their pizzas in three minutes or less; 800 Degrees cooks them in 60 to 90 seconds.

Pizza Studio also bakes in about two minutes, but it uses customized self-ventilating conveyor ovens, similar to those at Denver submarine sandwich chain Quiznos.

Pizza aficionados scoff at the idea of using a conveyor oven to make pizza, but Pizza Studio’s Varma said the low cost and simple build-out make finding real estate for the restaurants easier.

“We don’t require venting or a hood,” he said. “It’s given us a huge leg up in this pizza battle.”

But as the battle continues, something’s got to give.

“At some point there’s going to be a big shakeout because there are so many entering the market,” said Carron at 800 Degrees.

Rick Wetzel believes those lacking operating expertise will be the first to drop out of the race.