By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large
It’s almost an understatement to say the fast casual segment has seen explosive growth in the last five years.
There is now a competitive landscape filled with different sectors growing in popularity, including Asian, Middle-Eastern, better-burger, fresh-mex, plant-based, and more.
Arguably, the type of food that fits the fast casual format the best is pizza. It's fast, customizable, and usually in expensive.
With that in mind, there are an array of fast casual pizza brands competing to take the biggest piece of the pie in the market. We decided to take a look at the brands that are showing no signs of slowing down.
Here are three pizza concepts in the segment with at least 100+ stores.
Pie Five Pizza Co.
This pizza chain just opened its 100th store in the beginning of February.
"I can't think of a better way to kick off 2017 than with our 100th restaurant opening," said Scott Crane, CEO of Rave Restaurant Group, parent of Pie Five Pizza Co in a press release. "After 5 years and 100 locations, we are not slowing down. There is still so much enthusiasm and momentum behind this brand. I'm looking forward to the next 100."
The menu features 10 signature pies, salads, breadstix, and a few desserts.
“Our pizza gods created a few ingenious recipes you might not have thought of on your own because, well, that’s what we do! As always, feel free to swap out any of the ingredients and remember…every Pie Five pizza is the same price,” according to Pie Five about their signature pizzas.
For guests looking to make their own culinary creation, the restaurant offers 40 toppings, seven sauces, four different crusts, and seven “fresh finishes.”
Like most fast casual pizza brands, the oven is a crucial component to the day-to-day operations. Since fast speed-of-service is an expectation, the oven must be able to cook the pizzas fast and evenly. Pie Five’s ovens cook the pies in under two minutes.
Quality is another emphasis by the brand. Pie Five aims to make pizza as they call “the RIGHT way” with fresh ingredients.
So what sets them apart from the others?
One of the brand differentiators is that there are four dough options– Artisan Thin, Traditional Italian, Classic Pan, and Gluten-free.
The brand educates guests on the differences between the doughs with the “Crust University courses” like the intro to Artisan Thin, History of Traditional Italian, Elements of Classic Pan, and Gluten-free 101.
This chain just celebrated opening its 200th store in late January, which is an impressive feat for a brand itself in this market, but MOD Pizza doubled the company’s store numbers in just a year.
The brand focuses on customer service, its involvement in the community and its commitment to the MOD Squad (employees,) which are the elements that leaders at the pizza chain attribute its explosive growth to.
“At MOD our mission is simple: we make pizza so we can serve people. We celebrate our growth, and the opening of our 200th store, because it highlights how many Squad members have joined the MOD family. We now have over 4,000 passionate MOD Squad members who are energized by the belief that a company can succeed when putting its people first,” said Scott Svenson, co-founder and CEO of MOD in a press release. “Thanks to the support of our loyal customers, we’re able to continue our growth, bringing new jobs into more communities and allowing us to support important grassroots causes across the US. Last year alone, we partnered with more than 185 local charities in communities we serve, donating over $650,000 to organizations supporting at-risk youth and families.”
Besides resonating with customers by supporting the local community and their employees, the chain’s pizzas and salads are all the same set price.
The menu features 10 pizza combinations, a create your own option with 30 toppings to pick from, limited-time pizzas, three different salads, a create your own salad option, garlic or cinnamon strips, and milkshakes.
Not to mention, MOD Pizza wouldn’t be a fast casual without a focus on higher quality ingredients.
“Food authenticity is a huge deal with us – where it comes from, how it’s prepared – and of course, how it tastes. From hand-pressing our dough daily, to roasting our own vegetables, to banning the bad stuff – we’ve made it a priority to keep our food true,” according to the MOD website.
This fast casual was founded in 2012, making it one of the newest chains to try to conquer the market. For reference, Pie Five Pizza Co. was founded in 2011 and MOD Pizza in 2008.
At the end of last year the chain hit 173 stores.
The pizza chain has the celebrity endorsement of NBA star Lebron James, who was the original investor and holds franchise rights in Miami and Chicago.
“LeBron is the perfect ambassador for our brand because he embodies everything Blaze Pizza stands for. In everything he does, he is authentic and totally unique,” said Rick Wetzel, co-founder of Blaze Pizza in a press release. “This deal is extremely meaningful to us because LeBron has been by our side since the day we started, and we’re excited to continue to change the industry with his help.”
So what makes Blaze different?
“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 brand’s website.
The brand’s “Keepin’ it Real” initiative takes ingredient sourcing to the next level.
“To deliver against our commitment, several of our sources upgraded their recipes just for us. In some cases, we had to seek out new partners,” said Bradford Kent, Blaze Pizza’s executive chef in a press release. “It took months of review before we finally found a banana pepper that met our standards for both color and taste, without artificial colors or preservatives, but it was worth the time invested. You really can taste the difference.”
As for the menu, there are nine signature pizzas, a build-your-own option with over 45 toppings, six salad options, and a few desserts.
So there you have it. Three brands all trying to become the "Chipotle of pizza." But, they all have a little bit more to go to reach over 2,000 stores. Which one do you think will get there first?