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Monday, May 29, 2023

SPECIAL REPORT: Fast Pizza Chain Delivers

Blaze Pizza got started on an empty stomach.

Rick and Elise Wetzel, co-founders of Wetzel’s Pretzels, had just finished a meeting and were craving pizza for lunch. But the two weren’t interested in sitting at a nice restaurant or getting a pie delivered.

Unable to find something quick and delicious, they ended up eating at Chipotle. Elise said it was there that the idea for Blaze, a fast-casual pizza concept in Pasadena, took shape. What they saw in front of their eyes at the restaurant was all the market research they needed.

“As we were sitting there, after walking the line with our meal, we looked up and said there’s no reason why this wouldn’t work for pizza,” she said. “We were aware of other fast-casual concepts like Mendocino Farms, Tender Greens and Chipotle – all of them had an impact on us.”

When the Wetzels came up with their idea four years ago, assembly-line pizzerias selling made-to-order pies didn’t exist in Los Angeles. Now, the market is flooded with similar concepts such as PizzaRev in Westlake Village and 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria in Los Angeles.

But even with growing competition, Blaze has kept the fire burning by implementing a strategy focused on consistency, speed and service.

The company generated more than $32 million in revenue last year, a more than 4,200 percent increase compared with 2012. Its explosive growth has put it atop the Business Journal’s list of Fastest Growing Private Companies this year.

So why did his company grow so fast?

Rick Wetzel said he wished there was a singular explanation for the company’s growth, but it doesn’t exist.

“It’s literally a thousand little dials that you have to set just right,” he said. “And the discipline to be vigilant every single day to get those dials right and hold them takes a lot of work. It’s not any one thing.”

Rick Wetzel added that timing was also important. Pizza might be a $40 billion industry, but before Blaze opened no one had cracked the code on fast-casual pizza.

“We knew once we got going that a lot of people were going to jump in,” he said.

“It was going to have to shift from getting it figured out to going very fast. We knew we would have to (grow) fast.”

Fire starter

Blaze launched its first location in Pasadena in 2012, followed by a second shop in Irvine the next month.

The concept involves customers walking along its counter and building their own pizza by choosing sauce and toppings. Their personal pizza is then baked over a fire and ready in three minutes.

The company has 93 locations across the country – five are company owned with 88 franchises. Another store will be opening next month inside the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, as well as a 5,000-square-foot flagship at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., that’s expected to open in the spring.

Blaze, which touts investors such as Maria Shriver, film producer John Davis and Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner, recently won a major coup when professional basketball player LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers ditched his multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with fast-food giant McDonald’s to become Blaze’s spokesman.

James, who’s been a Blaze investor since 2012 and holds at least a 10 percent stake, will also be opening franchise locations in Miami and Chicago.

The company has settled on 44 franchise partners after wading through more than 5,000 franchising inquiries.

Elise Wetzel said one of the biggest challenges the firm faces when scaling the business is ensuring each location would offer diners the same experience.

“One of the hardest parts is the discipline of the brand stewardship and the decision to make sure that we present the same brand in every location,” she said. “A lot of times you have to say no to different ideas. It was getting all of our partners to agree and understand that what we’re building is a fast-casual concept.”

For example, you won’t see any limited-time offers or gimmicky posters in its dining room. The goal was to keep its message – offering diners customizable, made-to-order pizza in three minutes – as simple as possible.

It’s a mantra relayed to its food vendors as well.

Executive Chef Brad Kent said he will often work with vendors to make sure ingredients are all natural, which involves sourcing meat without any preservatives.

He said it might be more expensive to offer diners high-quality ingredients, but it allows the restaurant to provide consistency and quality, which keeps customers coming back.

“The biggest mistake,” said Kent, “is compromising on quality or staffing.”

Picture perfect

Blaze’s emphasis on food with high-quality ingredients served fast and to a customer’s order has baked in quite nicely with social-media savvy millennials. The company has more than 24,000 followers on Instagram and its restaurants have an average of 1,400 Facebook followers.

Case in point: On a Tuesday afternoon inside Blaze’s Pasadena location, a teenage girl stood on her chair to snap several photos of her freshly made pizza.

You might think the owners would prefer customers keep their feet off the furniture, but Rick Wetzel said it’s a common occurrence – and a welcome one.

“Elise and I are marketers,” Wetzel said. “We ran brand management at Nestlé and back then you ran very traditional marketing. Fast-forward to today, and all of a sudden those things are completely taboo. It’s a completely different way to build a brand but it’s fun if you’re clued into it.”

Jim Mizes, chief operating officer of Blaze, said consumer demand has really driven the company’s success.

“What we have built is the engine that can supply that demand,” Mizes said.

Rick Wetzel said a slowdown is nowhere in sight and he anticipates sales to hit $102 million this year and exceed $200 million in 2016.

“We have all these little dials that we have tried to set just right because we want people to say, Let’s go to Blaze.” he said. “They’re not thinking, I’m going out for pizza, because in our restaurant you get an experience.”

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