Top Kuwait operator, M.H. Alshaya, brings Blaze to Middle East
Top (l to r): Rick and Elise Wetzel, Blaze Pizza co-founders, and CEO Jim Mizes made finding the right partner a priority to bring the concept overseas.
There’s no fish on the menu at Blaze Pizza, but that’s exactly what company executives wanted in their first overseas franchise deal.
While numerous inquiries for international expansion had come the way of the Pasadena, California-based fast-casual pizza brand, “we’d just turned them all down, waiting for the right time and right partner,” says Blaze co-founder Rick Wetzel. “We definitely wanted to wait until we had a big fish.”
For Blaze Pizza, that big fish was M.H. Alshaya Co., the same Kuwait-based mega- franchise operator that’s brought more than 80 brands and 3,500 stores, including Starbucks, Cheesecake Factory and Pottery Barn, to the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Russia.
“Plan A was waiting for Alshaya … they’re absolutely best in class,” says Wetzel. And then, with a chuckle, “There really wasn’t a plan B.”
That plan A is underway following the signing in July of a franchise development agreement with Alshaya Co. and its Executive Chairman Mohammed Alshaya to build and operate 100 Blaze restaurants in the MENA region, with the first locations opening in Kuwait and Dubai in spring 2018.
Mohammed Alshaya’s company is the ‘big fish’ Blaze wanted.
Alshaya Co., which in recent years added Shake Shack and Raising Cane’s to its food and beverage portfolio, was looking to expand in the pizza category with a fast-casual concept to complement its fast food (UK-based PizzaExpress) and full service (Al Forno) brands.
“We believe that the Blaze concept of premium, fast-casual, custom-built pizzas will fit well in a market that prizes individuality, quality and convenience,” says Alshaya via email, noting pizza appeals to a large customer base and is an important category in the region.
“We look at concepts that are successful, scalable, innovative, and have something unique about them that we think will resonate with customers in our operating markets,” Alshaya continues, about what attracted his company to the concept Wetzel and his wife, Elise, founded in 2012. “Blaze not only ticks these boxes, but we were also attracted by the values of the organization. We have developed our business on the back of strong partnerships characterized by trust, integrity and mutual benefit, and we found those values in the Blaze management team.”
A comprehensive approach
Wetzel and CEO Jim Mizes concur, with Mizes noting he talked with leaders of other brands Alshaya Co. brought to international markets “and they had nothing but good things to say.” Alshaya Co. is uniquely comprehensive in its approach, Mizes points out, assigning each company it works with a brand manager and dedicated team responsible for everything from sourcing products to developing a real estate strategy.
“So as we grow over there, they grow the team,” says Mizes, adding the partnership with Alshaya Co. is an extension of Blaze’s domestic strategy “of picking the greatest operators and going where they are.”
For Alshaya, Blaze’s track record of growth was another selling point. “Whilst there are clearly many successful pizza brands in the market, the pace of growth delivered by Blaze in the USA is strong evidence of its appeal and international potential,” says Alshaya, in reference to a franchise that’s opened 200-plus restaurants in less than five years and, according to Blaze, is on pace to exceed $1 billion in annual systemwide sales by 2022.
And the breadth and depth of Alshaya Co.’s portfolio, points out its executive chairman, gives it a strong basis for assessing the potential of new brands coming into the market. Eating out, he says, is a popular leisure pastime in the Middle East, with many people dining out at least four times a week for lunch and dinner.
“Consumers here are well-traveled and extremely brand savvy,” continues Alshaya. “As such, they like successful, good quality international food concepts and positively welcome new food brands coming into the market.”
Those consumers want the same authentic experience as presented in a brand’s home market, Alshaya and Wetzel point out, which is why minimal modifications—save for some menu adaptations for cultural reasons—are planned.
“They like to bring brands over intact, in their purest form,” says Wetzel.
Alshaya Co., however, did request one change to the Blaze format, something entirely new for the concept: the opportunity to open delivery-only stores.
“Delivery is a big, big aspect of the culture in the Middle East, and that’s something that they asked for specifically,” says Mizes, adding those delivery-only locations will come only after Alshaya Co. has several traditional Blaze units up and running.
In the U.S. some Blaze locations do offer delivery through third-party provider DoorDash, and Mizes says the company is also planning to test delivery through Olo’s Dispatch platform.
It’s an internal challenge to both adapt to local customs and preferences where needed while still “maintaining the integrity and soul of the Blaze Pizza brand,” says Carolyne Canady, Blaze’s chief development officer who was recently promoted to president of international development. That focus on a consistent brand proposition is another reason why Blaze isn’t interested in master franchising or development agents, says Canady, and instead opts to continue internationally the same partnership strategy it employs in the U.S.
“Our international growth strategy is to partner with a small handful of franchisees across the world who have the capacity to develop Blaze Pizza in their country on a large scale,” says Canady. These partners have, among other capabilities, “material liquidity and access to capital to support aggressive growth,” and a “track record of developing multi-unit U.S. food and beverage brands in their country.”
With additional holdings in real estate, construction, hotels and automotive, the Alshaya group has all that and more, says Wetzel, calling it “the best franchise operator in the world.”
“Their service levels are off the charts,” he adds. “Their execution is just incredible.”
For his part, Alshaya says “well-established American brands resonate well with consumers in the region,” and conversations are ongoing with “many potential brand partners who recognize the potential of the region and the benefits of partnering with Alshaya.”