Pizza upstarts race to become the next Chipotle

05/24/2014 4:44 PM

05/25/2014 10:04 PM

In the coming years, a new kind of chain restaurant will pop up by the thousands across the country and beyond, pouring tomato sauce and grating mozzarella over America’s culinary landscape in the race to become “the Chipotle of pizza.”

That means diners get to customize their own pizzas as they’re prepared in assembly-line fashion in an environment somewhere between fast-food and upscale. The pizzas are usually 11 to 12 inches, cost about $7 and are baked in a super-hot oven, so diners are sitting down to eat within minutes.

Like Chipotle, the newest pizza chains tout premium ingredients — organic baby spinach, Fra’ Mani salami, truffle cheese. And they say they’re changing the way Americans consume pizza; it’s not just about delivery anymore (and chains such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s are adapting to catch up).

Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza is making the concept’s first foray into the South Florida market with a Fort Lauderdale location opening soon and 10 Miami franchise spots announced.

Co-founder Rick Wetzel points out that 41 percent of Americans eat pizza once a week and 90 percent eat it once a month.

“I think that this category is probably good for 5,000 restaurants across the U.S. in seven to 10 years,” he said. “I want my share of them.”

If the number of pizzas being made is any indication, they’re all on to something. Anthony Carron, chef and co-founder of 800 Degrees Pizzeria, says its Westwood location in Los Angeles has sold more 275,000 pizzas since it launched last year.

Wetzel says his Blaze in Pasadena is “doing upward of 1,000 pizzas a day. The numbers are insane.”

More build-your-own pizzerias seem to open every day.

Daytona Beach-based My Pi opened this year in Coconut Grove, serving custom-built pizzas and craft beer. The Pizza Dude in Miami Beach has been letting customers top their own pies since last May, with plans to expand the concept to other locations.

Spin Pizza of Kansas City, Mo., now has locations in Orange County, Calif., and plans to open a Huntington Beach, Calif., pizzeria in the spring; Pizza Press of Anaheim, Calif., is developing a franchising strategy; and the founders of California Pizza Kitchen, which has seven South Florida locations, are expected to launch a yet-to-be-announced customizable-pizza concept this year.

How to keep up with them all? Here’s a guide to several major contenders.

Miami Herald food editor Evan S. Benn contributed to this report.

800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza

Number of locations: Four, with eight more planned for this year, in Southern California and Las Vegas.

The pizza: Neapolitan, hand-stretched pies with toppings such as prosciutto di Parma, Fra’ Mani salami, bacon marmalade, buffalo mozzarella or truffle cheese, cooked in a wood-burning oven.

The price: A Margherita pizza is $6.65; add-ons are $1 to $6. Specialty pies such as the Vongole (fresh clams, pecorino, garlic, black pepper, parsley) are $8.85 to $12.85.

The players: Anthony Carron, who had worked at Michael Mina in San Francisco, teamed with Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger and Allen Ravert of Mexicali Cocina Cantina.

The sell: Wood-burning oven. Also, “it's nice enough that you can come here on a date,” Carron says.

Blaze Pizza

Number of locations: Six in Southern California, with more than 50 planned for there and the rest of the country, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The pizza: Thin pressed-dough pizzas, from simple (tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan) to signature (pesto, chicken, red peppers, garlic, mozzarella, arugula).

The price: A Simple Pie is $5; a one-topping pizza is $5.85; and any build-your-own or Blaze specialty pizza is $7.45.

The players: Rick and Elise Wetzel, along with Maria Shriver and Tom Werner (co-owner of the Boston Red Sox), among others.

The sell: Chef-driven fast-casual. Bradford Kent of Olio Pizzeria developed the dough, which ferments for 24 hours.

Live Basil Pizza

Number of locations: Four, in Colorado and Los Angeles. The company won’t disclose expansion plans and currently doesn’t franchise.

The pizza: Neapolitan pizzas from a gas-fired brick oven with ingredients such as fresh goat cheese, bison sausage and organic baby spinach.

The price: Up to three toppings plus fresh vegetables for $8.50. Cheese pizza is $8, and signature pies, such as Italian sausage and wild mushroom, are $8 to $10.

The players: Rick Schaden and Tom Ryan of Consumer Capital Partners as well as SmashBurger and 24-hour diner Tom’s Urban 24. Ryan is also a former executive of Quiznos, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

The sell: Slightly more upscale, with a lot of marketing emphasis on its organic and local. Basil grows on the counter.

MOD Pizza

Number of locations: 14, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Co-founder Scott Svenson says Seattle-based MOD Pizza (“made on demand”) plans to add 40 stores this year and 100 more by the end of 2015.

The pizza: Super-thin, crisp-edged pizzas baked in 800-degree stone-bed ovens. Create your own or choose from its “Top 11” pizzas, such as the Sienna with mozzarella, Parmesan, garlic, fresh rosemary, red onion and mushrooms.

The price: Pizzas are $7.47 each with unlimited toppings; a mini (6-inch) pizza is $4.77.

The players: Svenson, a former Starbucks executive, and his wife, Ally Svenson, who co-founded Seattle Coffee Co.

The sell: Uber family-friendly, with hand-spun milkshakes, garlic knots and cinnamon knots, and diners are greeted with gusto by employees when they enter.

My Pi

Number of locations: 2 in Florida, opening soon in Newport News, Va.

The pizza: 9-inch pies with puffy, chewy crusts. Choose tomato, alfredo, ranch, BBQ or pesto sauces, then cheeses, proteins and veggies. Or pick from a number of signature pizzas.

The price: Pizzas are $7.50 with up to three toppings; $.75 per extra topping.

The players: Former Muvico Theaters executives Michael F. Whalen Jr. and Michael Wilson own My Pi through their Jupiter-based Paragon Entertainment Group.

The sell: Hip to the young, urban, professional crowd, My Pi embraces social media and craft beer.


Number of locations: 15 in California and one in Colorado. Founder Carl Chang says he expects more franchises soon.

The pizza: Super-thin-crust flatbread pizza baked in Wood Stone ovens; either choose your own toppings or pick one of Pieology’s seven combos.

The price: $7.50 with unlimited toppings, $6 for its classic cheese pizza.

The players: Founder Chang, real estate developer and former tennis coach of younger brother Michael Chang.

The sell: Chang says his goal is to “really get connected to the local community, local schools.” One pizza in each quarter of the year at each location is named for a local person.


Number of locations: 7, with 10 more planned for the Los Angeles area in the next year.

The pizza: Pressed-dough pizza that PizzaRev calls “Roman-style thin and crispy.” Choose your sauce (tomato, white, olive oil or barbecue), cheese (mozzarella, feta, blue or ricotta), then any of the 27 toppings listed on its menu. There’s also a separate condiment bar with 20 to 30 kinds of sauces and spices.

The price: They’re all $7.99.

The players: Irv Zuckerman and Rodney Eckerman, former co-chief executives of Clear Channel Entertainment, and sons Jeff Zuckerman and Nicholas Eckerman, who partnered with the owners of Buffalo Wild Wings.

The sell: Stone-bed double-sided ovens cut down on waiting times. Also, Coca-Cola Freestyle machines that dispense 100 brands of beverages.

Pizza Studio

Number of locations: 5 in Southern California, with 160 franchises planned over the next five years, co-founder Samit Varma says.

The pizza: Pressed-dough flatbread-style pizzas baked in a conveyor-belt convection oven. Choose your crust, sauce (tomato, basil pesto, tangy barbecue or olive oil), toppings and final seasonings.

The price: Any pizza with unlimited toppings is $7.99. Starving Artist pizzas such as a Margherita, pepperoni or Island Pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, caramelized onion, crispy bacon, pineapple and basil) are $5.99.

The players: Varma, a venture capitalist and engineer with a military background, partnered with Ron Biskin, a former Wolfgang Puck executive and chief operating officer of Native Foods Cafe.

The sell: Multiple flavors of pizza dough, such as traditional, whole-grain and flax seed, and spicy “firecracker.”

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