Pizza. A blank canvas filled with dreams. Starting with the crust and rising upward through the sauce, cheese and toppings, pizza can be tailored to satisfy the palate – and pocketbook – of anyone. And pizza franchises have become the dream of many an entrepreneur.

Pizza. By the slice or by the pie. Plain cheese or gourmet toppings. Thin crust or thick. On the run or at the finest restaurants. Home-made or delivered to your door. Fresh and steaming from a wood-fired oven or cold as next day’s leftovers.

Pizza has become a staple of the American diet – and so have pizza franchises. This nearly $40 billion category has come a long way since Gennaro Lombardi, an immigrant and baker from Naples, Italy, opened the nation’s first licensed pizzeria in New York City in 1905. For most of the next 40 years, pizza remained primarily the province of Italians, city dwellers, and East Coasters.

In 1943 in Chicago, Pizzeria Uno (today’s Uno Chicago Grill) is credited with “Americanizing” the pizza with its introduction of Chicago deep-dish pizza. Returning World War II vets soon added further to pizza’s acceptance in the U.S., but it was two sets of pie-oneering brothers from the Midwest who really put pizza in the mouths of mainstream America.

In 1958, in Wichita, Kansas, two brothers, Frank and Dean Carney, with $600 borrowed from their mother, opened the first Pizza Hut. Today Pizza Hut is the world’s largest pizza chain, with nearly $9 billion in sales, and about 12,000 franchised units in 100 countries. (Pizza Hut is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, which also owns A&W, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and Taco Bell.)

Two years later, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, another pair of brothers, Tom and Nick Monaghan, founded DomiNick’s Pizza. Better known today as Domino’s Pizza, this take-out and delivery concept is the number two pizza brand in the U.S., approaching $5 billion in annual sales through nearly 8,000 sites in about 50 countries.

As pizza grew mainstream in the following decades, gourmet, wood-fired, and individual-size pizzas made their appearance in such well-known establishments as Chez Panisse CafîYAlice Waters) and Spago’s (Wolfgang Puck). In 1985, pizza completed its cross-country conquest of America when two lawyers, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield, opened California Pizza Kitchen, marking the introduction of California-style pizza, which then made its way back East.

Still, with the country saturated in pizzas of all shapes, sizes, and varieties, plenty of opportunity remains for new pizza franchises – and franchisees – hungry for a slice of the expanding market pie.

Six pizza franchises were ranked among the top 100 brands in Entrepreneur magazine’s 2006 Franchise 500 rankings: Domino’s Pizza (11), Pizza Hut (12), Papa John’s (29), Papa Murphy’s (57), Cici’s Pizza (68), and Hungry Howie’s Pizza & Subs (90).

Within the pizza industry, Pizza Today magazine ranked the top five pizza companies in 2005 as follows: Pizza Hut (1), Domino’s Pizza (2), Papa John’s International (3), Little Caesars Pizza (4), and Sbarro (5), the same top five as the previous year. The next five on the list were Chuck E. Cheese’s (6), Uno Chicago Grill (7), CiCi’s Pizza (8), California Pizza Kitchen (9), and Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza (10). Among the previous year’s top ten, Round Table Pizza fell from 10th to 12th place in revenues.

So what’s the bottom line as pizza in America enters its second century? Maybe that good taste is timeless – and like art, this simple staple, built on flour, tomatoes, and cheese, will continue to evolve and grow with changing times – good news for pizza franchisees and pizza lovers everywhere.

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