Let’s face it, pizza will never go out of style. It’s been a consumer favorite for what feels like forever. But it really got its start in the US in the 1900s, following WWII when it quickly became a staple in America after soldiers missed the pies they had while stationed in Italy.
Today, families across America still have “pizza night” and when there is a recession, the pizza market only continues to strive. This is because pizza is a consistently delicious, comforting and cost-effective option for consumers.
In this $40 billion industry, there are about three billion pizzas sold in the US every year.
The beloved pizza has been the focus of millions of casual-dining and quick-serve restaurants for many years. But within the last ten years, fast casual has taken the restaurant industry by storm. The fast casual format certainly suits pizza. Pizza is fast, inexpensive and customizable.
That’s why fast casual pizza concepts are on the rise.
Let’s take a look at the top five restaurant chains thriving in this segment. This ranking isn’t editorially based, instead we have pulled consumer social data from the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI.) These are the concepts with the highest overall ranking– a score based on sentiment, influence, engagement, location-based actions and mobile engagement.
MOD Pizza Sentiment Score: 91.02 | Overall Score: 453.08
With over 110 locations in 16 states, this build-your-own pizza concept announced plans to double its store count in March by the end of this year, after raising $32 million in equity funding. The brand’s unit number tripled in 2015 and the brand had a same-stores growth of 12.4% at the end of last year.
“This category was primed for some innovation,” said Scott Svenson, CEO of MOD Pizza to Fortune. “It is a fast-casual experience centered around a fantastic individualized pizza.”
So what is the brand’s secret recipe? Well, it’s a mixture of things– specifically purpose, people and profit. The brand’s mission is to make their customers happy. A husband and wife team started the restaurant and wanted to “bring a bit of lightness and hope into people’s daily lives.”
Then it’s corporate culture plays a major role in the brand’s success. Happy employees mean happy guests. MOD Pizza is ranked no. 7 on Fortune’s 20 Best Workplaces in the Retail category. “The “MOD Squad” which emerged helped turn MOD into a place where you want to take your family, and where it feels like family. A place that prides itself on providing a special experience to customers and MOD Squaders alike. Like magic, a spirit of individuality, teamwork, and service emerged. That’s what we call MODness. And, the best part is, it’s just starting to spread,” according to the MOD’s website.
But, ultimately it’s all about the food. MOD allows customers to create their dream pizza pies and unlike most of the pizza concepts in this category, MOD also offers a salad option. “One of the great things about MOD is in addition to getting a pizza build anyway you want, you can get a salad made any way you want– and the pizza salad is a combination of the two,” said Svenson to Foodable.
This evidently appeals to consumers. Restaurant visits are up by 2.38% in the second quarter of 2016, according to RSMI data. The concept lands at no. 1 on the list of Most Engaged Fast Casuals, also pulled from RSMI data.
Pizzeria Locale Sentiment Score: 88.31 | Overall Score: 404.41
A few years ago, Chipotle’s founder Steve Ells visited a pizza joint in Boulder, Colorado. "When I saw Pizzeria Locale #1 for the first time I thought, 'My gosh, what if we could duplicate this experience, but in the Chipotle format that relies on great ingredients, classic cooking techniques, [and] interactive service?' Because I believe this is the new fast food model,” said Ells to Eater. This is how the partnership between the restauranteurs, Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and Steve Ells started.
Although the chain only has seven store locations so far, the restaurant visits are up by 1.28% and the sentiment score saw a 9.99% increase from the first quarter to the 2nd quarter of 2016, according to the RSMI.
So why is the brand resonating with consumers?
Well, similar to Chipotle the focus is on simple, authentic, high-quality ingredients. “Each pizza we cook isn’t just a delicious meal, it’s like an edible postcard, straight from southern Italy,” according to Pizzeria Locale’s website. “Pizzeria Locale is proud to share Chipotle’s goals, values, and its commitment to serving Food With Integrity.”
The Italian restaurant’s menu offers a selection of artisan pizzas, along with a build-your-own option, a house salad, sides- including pork meatballs and prosciutto, budino for dessert and an array of beverages including wine and craft beer.
Blaze Pizza Sentiment Score: 74.20 | Overall Score: 396.04
This California-based fast casual lands at number three on the RSMI ranking of the pizza category. With 150 stores and a projected growth plan of 350 more stores by 2020, this concept is quickly expanding across the country. Blaze Pizza tripled its sales of the year prior in 2015 with a total profit of $101 million.
This concept is operated mostly by franchisees, with only six stores company-owned and it was started by Elise and Rick Wetzel, the founders of Wetzel’s Pretzels. It is also a chef-driven concept that offers customers build-your-own pizza options with 40 different ingredients and eight signature pizzas.
The brand’s voice is unique with a hip, playful tone appealing specifically to millennials. “Ok, we're gonna keep this quick. Because exceptional quality at lightning fast speed is what we're all about. Blaze Pizza. Head food guy, Executive Chef Bradford Kent (aka "The Pizza Whisperer"). Fresh, made-from-scratch dough. Healthful, artisanal ingredients on the assembly line. Inventive to classic. You decide. Blazing hot oven + dedicated pizzasmith + 180 seconds = fast-fire’d, perfectly crisp perfection. Sound good? Enjoy the rest of your day,” according to the Blaze Pizza website.
So how is the brand attracting not only customers, but also franchisees?
“We wanted a chef-driven concept, this enables us to separate ourselves in this category of fast casual pizza that is really migrating from California to across the nation and found its way into South Florida where we are right now. We also wanted a seasoned management team and fantastic franchise partners,” said Adam Cummis, Blaze Pizza Franchise for Illinois & South Florida, about why he selected Blaze.
We have seen Blaze’s RSMI overall score make an impressive gradual increase from 291.64 in the second quarter of 2015 to 396.04 in the same period of this year. The LBAs are also up by a whopping 4.61%.
Other concepts rounding out the top five fast casual pizza ranking are PizzaRev, a brand with over 200 stores with backing from Buffalo Wild Wings, with an overall score of 358.16 and &pizza, a chain with 17 east coast locations and two more coming soon, with an overall score of 343.1.
Top Five Fast Casual Pizza Chains
This most recent ranking also shows there is still a ton of potential in this market. In terms of the entire fast casual ranking that includes all sectors, the no.1 fast casual pizza restaurant MOD Pizza landed at no. 27.
This just shows that fast casual pizza still has some catching up to do, but the concepts above are on the rise, showing some impressive promise for the sector.