Last week, Blaze Pizza announced that it’d be opening in Toronto, its first location outside of the United States. Even if you’ve never heard of Blaze, you’ll understand its concept: pizza topped in an assembly line right before your eyes and, then, flash-baked in a hyper-hot oven. These “Chipotle-like” eateries are the latest entry into the fast-casual sphere and business is a-boomin’, as dozens of companies grapple to take the lead amongst the fray. If history is any indication, one chain will emerge as king and the others will be vanquished — R.I.P. Kenny Roger’s Roasters — or live out their remaining, sad lives in the winner’s shadow. Let’s take a look at the field.
Blaze, to start, has some serious money and growth going for it. It’s up to 75 restaurants and it was founded in 2012 by Elise and Rick Wetzel, who co-founded mall staple Wetzel’s Pretzels. Not to mention, it’s got a stoner-friendly name and that can’t hurt sales, “Wanna blaze and get Blaze?” some idiot has definitely already said. Lest we forget, it’s also backed by LeBron James. But, remember, LeBron can lose the big game — and crush my mother’s Cleveland-born heart. Goddamn it LeBron, why can’t you just give these poor people a championship already?
While Blaze has an impressive resume thus far, it might always be the Qdoba to Pizzeria Locale’s Chipotle. And that’s because Chipotle itself has already invested in Pizzeria Locale. The first location opened in Boulder in 2011; now the shop boasts spots in Denver and Kansas City (with one opening soon in Cincinnati). Chipotle has mastered the art of the careful expansion, so this slow growth is no surprise. As for the pizza itself? It’s dank. The Denver location churns out chewy crusts with a fresh, bright tomato sauce, and the budino is quickly enlisting a cult-like following.
Who are the other major threats? Live Basil Pizza was founded by Smashburger honcho Tom Ryan and has grown to six locations in Denver and Los Angeles. Started in the latter city, PizzaRev garnered a $9 million investment from Buffalo Wild Wings and has nearly 30 locations — with a ton of expansion on the way. And don’t count out 800 Degrees — get it? the oven is hot — from the Umami Restaurant Group. Or, really — holy shit — there are so many of these restaurants now.
The winner of these wars won’t be determined for some time now, and there may yet be enough room for a few companies to coexist. (And could they take a — no, please don’t give into the easy slice-out-of-the-pie analogy no, don’t — segment of the net margins from large chains like Pizza Hut and Dominos?) My lunch money is on Chipotle and its Pizzeria Locale. Don’t bet against the budino.