Just two years ago, assembly line pizzerias selling made-to-order pizzas didn’t exist in Los Angeles. Since then – thanks to a realization that super-hot ovens can cook pizzas in as little as 60 seconds – four local restaurant companies with similar concepts have opened shop. Suddenly, competition is super-hot, too.
Each of the companies – 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria, Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, PizzaRev and Pizza Studio – has mapped out national expansion plans. As they begin to act on those plans, their oven mitts are up, ready to fight for their piece of the pie. With food industry heavyweights backing each of them, the fight may be intense.
Earlier this month, Calabasas chain Pizza Studio – the youngest and smallest of the four with only one open restaurant – announced that it signed a deal with San Jose franchisee Studio 37 LLC to open 25 pizzerias in the San Francisco metro area. The deal is only the latest for the fledgling chain, which said it has contracts for 74 restaurants and expects to have as many as 76 more signed before the end of the year.
Partners Samit Varma and Ron Biskin co-founded and now run Pizza Studio, which they envision expanding into thousands of restaurants across the country.
“We want to be the next Chipotle,” Varma said.
But they’re not the only ones. Both Blaze in Pasadena and PizzaRev in Westlake Village have similarly aggressive goals for their chains.
Wetzel’s Pretzels owners Rick and Elise Wetzel, who co-founded Blaze, have opened three pizzerias thus far and say they have several multi-unit franchisees set to open an additional 17 in the next year.
Former entertainment industry executives Irv Zuckerman and Rodney Eckerman, co-founders of PizzaRev, have so far opened five pizzerias, and last week announced their intentions to franchise in all 50 states.
800 Degrees, co-founded by chef Anthony Carron and Umami Restaurant Group duo Adam Fleischman and Allen Ravert, has slower, more deliberate plans for national dominance, which Carron said don’t include franchising the concept.
“I want to control the quality and the process,” he said. “Those other guys may make a lot of money selling franchises – good for them – but I’m here to operate restaurants and make great pizza.”
Pizza chain 800 Degrees has one restaurant in Westwood, will open a second next month at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and a third in Santa Monica in December. A couple more – in Las Vegas and likely in Old Pasadena and Studio City, too – will open in the next year. But Carron said he doesn’t see the chain ever growing as much as its local competitors.
“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.
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.
“Being an operator with experience, I know that where it really gets hard is when you start getting beyond those initial few stores,” he said. “If you can’t run 20 stores well, you start slipping back.”
To ensure their success, the Wetzels recently hired Jim Mizes, former president of Emeryville chain Freebirds World Burrito, to run Blaze as president and chief operating officer. Blaze funded its launch last year with $3 million from investors, including former California first lady Maria Shriver, Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner, Panda Express owner Andrew Cherng and film producer John Davis.
Carron, having worked for celebrity chef Michael Mina in San Francisco for 10 years running 20 restaurants, will handle operations for the pizza chain himself. His expansion efforts were buoyed last spring when 800 Degrees received $7 million from undisclosed investors.
Around the same time in the spring, PizzaRev received a minority investment from Minneapolis public restaurant company Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar. Pizza Rev’s founding partners Zuckerman and Eckerman brought in their sons Jeff Zuckerman and Nicholas Eckerman to handle marketing and operations, respectively.
At Pizza Studio, Varma, a partner at Anthem Venture Partners in Santa Monica, will rely on his business sense and his partner Biskin’s experience in the restaurant industry. Before teaming up with Varma, Biskin worked as president of Wolfgang Puck Express Licensing LLC.
But for all the money and experience each company brings to the table, all parties agree that their shared concept of fast casual pizza has staying power, regardless of who makes it big first.
“We believe the better pizza category is one that’s going to develop across the country,” Irv Zuckerman said. “I think we’re changing the paradigm of eating pizza.”
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