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Doughboys

Securing a piece of the pie is a fresh battle for fast-casuals


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“It’s time to shake this industry,” says one exec, and get dough to the table in minutes. Photo illustration by Joe Veen

The next big thing in restaurants may be pizzas made to order with fresh ingredients. Proponents say it’s not acceptable to buy ‘slices of used pizza.’ But one frontrunner in the trend has a falling unit count.

Pizza is not supposed to be fast food. If it is, then that means the pie is pre-cooked and either reheated with a few added toppings or kept in a warmer. Neither choice gives the diner much in the way of options.

But a few restaurant entrepreneurs have seemingly found a solution to this particular dilemma: Turn up the heat.

Restaurateurs are cooking pizzas with thinner crusts in specialized or wood-burning ovens at a higher temperature in about the same amount of time it takes to fry a burger. Their solution could well become the next big thing in the restaurant industry: fast-casual pizza—pizzas made to order with fresh ingredients.

“To me, it’s like what Starbucks did for coffee,” said Matt Andrew, former Moe’s Southwest Grill executive who helped found Uncle Maddio’s, an Atlanta-based, fast-casual pizza chain. “It used to be only regular and decaf and you got it on every block at the gas station. And then Starbucks comes along and shows us a better way. They sell you a cup of gourmet coffee.

“It’s time to shake (up) this industry, tell people it’s not acceptable to buy slices of used pizza, or that it’s necessary to go to a pizza place and have it take 30 minutes for the pizza to be delivered.”

To be sure, upscale concepts have been selling specialty pizzas cooked quickly in wood-burning stoves for years. More recently, small chains and independents, such as Pieology out of California and Punch in Minnesota, have applied this to a fast-casual setting. A few concepts, such as Cosi, have pizza on their menu. But now some companies are looking to take the ideas national, including Pie Five, started last year by Pizza Inn, plus smaller upstarts Tre’za and Uncle Maddio’s. Other concepts could get into the mix, too, among them: the people behind Smashburger, who are developing a fast-casual pizza concept.

It remains to be seen whether diners will go for pizza at lunchtime. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of restaurant research for Technomic in Chicago, believes they’ll likely have to offer other items like salads or sandwiches to succeed. And it’s not like companies haven’t tried fast-casual pizza. A few years ago, Red Brick Pizza was heralded as the first potential fast-casual pizza chain—it makes pizzas in wood-burning brick ovens—but its unit count has fallen since 2008.

The pizza market overall is saturated, with numerous restaurant chains and even intense competition from grocers and convenience stores. Then again, people have said similar things about the sandwich and burger sectors, and both continue to welcome new concepts and new ideas. “You just never know,” said Tristano. “This is a surprising, dynamic industry.”

New name gives idea legs

The people behind Pie Five didn’t start out developing a fast-casual pizza chain. Their goal was simpler: to give buffet-concept Pizza Inn a way to take advantage of the express trend so it could locate in airports and on college campuses.

“We felt like a lot of chains like Subway and some of the chicken players were delivering a fresh product,” said Charlie Morrison, CEO of Pizza Inn. “The consumer was looking for fresh. And they wanted to get it quickly. But what we were lacking was speed to get throughput.”

And then Morrison saw an oven at the National Restaurant Show a couple of years ago that he felt changed the dynamic. The TurboChef oven only required a small footprint. It didn’t need ventilation, meaning it could stay close to the dining room—nor did it give off heat. “We took it to our test kitchen at the office, rebuilt it, rearranged it, and aligned it with pieces of equipment,” Morrison said.

Over the subsequent months, the company worked on ways to make a pizza within a few minutes. It took this idea to a focus group and named it “Pizza Inn Express.”

It was fine but for one problem: the name. Consumers in the focus group didn’t give the idea much credence, simply because it was called Pizza Inn. The 30-year-old chain is a buffet concept. Diners wouldn’t associate a concept called Pizza Inn Express with freshly made pizza.

So Pizza Inn changed the name to Pie Five, and almost overnight the focus group gave the idea legs. Pie Five could offer ingredients and pizza ideas that a Pizza Inn Express could not. “As we were doing our research, we quickly realized the name of the concept had a lot to do with customers’ perceptions,” Morrison said. “If someone walked into a small Pizza Inn Express, they had a pre-conceived notion of what it was going to be. It was going to be hard to change their minds. So we decided not to force them into something uncomfortable.”

The name Pie Five came from the time it takes for a pizza to be served—five minutes. The company makes the dough fresh each day and pre-makes each crust, baking them for 30 seconds to stop the yeast process. All pies are nine inches. Diners custom-order the pizza, or use the company’s suggestion, and the oven cooks the pizza at 60 to 70 degrees warmer than normal. Air also helps the process, and the pizza cooks in just two minutes.

“The whole process is under four minutes,” Morrison said. “But we gave us five minutes just to be safe.”

The concept has resonated with customers thus far. The first Pie Five opened in June to strong reviews, and the company has been so well received by investors that Pizza Inn’s stock tripled last year.  

After ‘marinating’ comes Maddio’s

For Matt Andrew, the recession might have come at the perfect time. Andrew, who spent years running Moe’s Southwest Grill before it was sold to Focus Brands, spent 18 months “marinating” Uncle Maddio’s, perfecting a business model he hopes will be a cross between Chipotle and Moe’s, only with pizza.

Andrew said he spent the better part of 2008 in a test kitchen, developing the system and the recipes so the first store could open in January 2009. The idea he developed included many of the elements that propel fast-casual concepts—fresh, sustainable ingredients with made-on-the-spot menu items.
The concept enables diners to design their own pizza—it offers 27 types of vegetables, and 15 types of meat. Uncle Maddio’s offers diners a choice of pizza sizes, unlike most fast-casual pizza outfits that offer only single-serving 9-inch crusts.

The crusts are thin, crispy New York style, which can speed the cooking process. The pizzas are seared on both sides at 500 to 600 degrees. The total process, Andrew said, takes six minutes, and they’re ready to be served shortly after customers sit down with their drinks. “We can deliver a pizza in six minutes, and we started with raw steak, dough and sauce,” he said. “That’s just a couple of minutes longer than it takes to wrap a burrito.”

Uncle Maddio’s is on track to open 15 new units by the end of the year, which brings the company’s total to 20, and there are plans to open another 30 in 2013. Within four years, it plans to have 175 units.

Who is “Uncle Maddio,” by the way? “I am,” Andrew said. “My brother used to call me that. It was a family nickname.”

What to serve for supper?

Scott McGehee and John Beachboard didn’t set out to start a pizza chain five years ago. Their initial goal was a salad concept, like Tossed or Mad Greens. They toured salad chains, noting the long lines of mostly women standing and waiting to pay $15 for salads at lunchtime.

But there was a problem: Those lines were nonexistent in the evening. “The dinner business was horrible,” McGehee said. “That’s when we had the bright idea of putting in wood-oven pizza.”

McGehee was a trained chef whose uncle had a cooking school in Italy. And he’d always had a love of Neapolitan pizza—thin-crust pizza made in hot, wood-burning ovens with few ingredients so they’re cooked quickly. They worked with an importer who found a family in Italy who made six-foot, wood-burning ovens with a stone hearth that holds a temperature of 750 degrees.

“We make pizza the old style,” McGehee said, “with tomatoes, just barely ground up, olive oil, salt and garlic. All that goes into the sauce. High-quality mozzarella, vegetables, meats. We put it directly on the stone, rotate it a few times. It’s done in four to five minutes, give or take.”

Tre’za grew in popularity and ultimately was discovered by a group out of Florida that promised to franchise the concept and take it national—the company is working on the first store in Atlanta right now.

One reason McGehee believes Tre’za scored big with the public is the recession. He says many diners wanted gourmet items but without the big tab.

“The people wanted this gourmet thing, but they didn’t want to spend the $100 per person,” he said.

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