There have been signs lately that fast-casual pizza chains are facing headwinds. This spring, MOD Pizza closed over 25 locations. Last week, Blaze Pizza announced it was relocating its corporate headquarters from Southern California to Atlanta and revamping its menu. 

These maneuvers could be viewed as setbacks. But what if they are simply signs that fast-casual pizza chains, recently the darlings of the pizza industry, have been forced to rethink how and where they will grow? 

Sam Danley, associate editor at QSR magazine—sister publication to PMQ—recently took a deep dive into several fast-casual brands and where they were headed. The story was based on interviews with leadership from Pieology Pizzeria as well as &pizza and provided a snapshot of a segment that’s finding new ways to stimulate growth. 

Related: Blaze Pizza Is Moving Its Headquarters, Revamping Menu

One of the main themes Danley identified is that the exact things that made fast-casual pizza brands attractive to customers in the 2010’s also hurt them once the pandemic hit. For example, customers seemed to flock toward the promise of custom-made pizzas, built using the model popularized by quick-service giants like Chipotle. For the first time at scale, brands like MOD Pizza allowed customers the ability to pick and choose ingredients and watch a pizza quickly be made in front of their eyes. 

It turned out this model didn’t translate as well once off-premises ordering was increasingly in demand. As a result, independent pizzerias and the largest chains—already primed for takeout and delivery ordering—took full advantage. 

“You haven’t seen fast-casual pizza follow the same channels of digital evolution and product evolution,” said Shawn Thompson, CEO of Pieology Pizza. “It just hasn’t changed as much as the world has, and due to some of those missteps, growth has really stagnated within this space.”

Thompson took over as CEO of Pieology in January 2022. One of his first moves as CEO was something that didn’t come naturally to him as someone who had a background growing chains like Burger King and Tim Hortons at Restaurant Brands International. He put a halt to Pieology’s growth, giving the brand a chance to catch its breath and reassess what was working and what wasn’t. 

“This was a brand that hadn’t really evolved too terribly much since its inception,” Thompson told QSR magazine. “The markets it entered after 2016 or so hadn’t been as successful. Instead of trying to continue on at the same pace, taking two steps forward and one step back, we wanted to fix it, get the model and the economics behind the model right, and then go back to aggressive growth with the right partners.”

Pieology took a hard look at its menu, getting rid of pizzas that bogged down throughout. It also added innovative menu items that were relatively easy for the back-of-house to create. The brand also took a look at everything from its tech stack to the way its restaurant prototypes were designed. And yes, it contracted stores as well. 

“We canceled some of the markets we were going to enter while we focused on getting our operating model optimized,” Thompson said. “Our biggest focus since then has been figuring out how we evolve into this new world and what our model is going to be in the future.”

Pieology Pizzeria wasn’t the only brand to add new leadership. &pizza tapped Mike Burns, the former COO of Pizza Inn and Pie Five, to serve as its new CEO and to usher in a new era of growth. For Burns, the challenge was rediscovering the magic that had made &pizza a unique brand to begin with. 

“When &pizza started in 2012, the differentiator was that it’s a cool pizza place with a fun environment,” Burns said. “We got a little too corporate at some point. You get to 50 stores and it starts feeling like a chain restaurant, which it is, but we don’t want the stores to feel like that.”

One thing Burns quickly identified was that &pizza district managers were spread too thin, perhaps the result of the brand growing too fast and too furiously. Each DM was responsible for 15–20 restaurants. which made it hard to breathe life into each location without having others fall behind. 

“We’re seeing momentum from stores just running better,” he said. “Transaction counts have steadily improved, and we’re starting to see more stores comp positive because we have the right people there.”

This photo shows a phone with the &pizza logo and several oblong-shaped pizzas.

Another area where Burns saw the need for improvement was &pizza’s tech stack, which had become bogged down by proprietary systems overseen by a relatively small IT team. Ultimately, Burns elected to outsource much of &pizza’s tech, allowing his IT team to instead focus on tending to relationships with those tech companies rather than trying to build and maintain systems from scratch. That’s helped the brand return to its roots. 

“It was like having a Ferrari, but not having a mechanic to work on it,” Burns said. “I had to make a decision. Do we want to be a tech company, or do we want to be a pizza chain? Do we want to have 15 people in-house maintaining it every day, or do we want to run lean with a couple of bodies that can manage and maintain things through vendors?”

The biggest takeaway from Danley’s story is that fast-casual pizza brands may be down, but they certainly aren’t out. Because they were in the midst of massive growth periods prior to the pandemic, it simply took them a bit longer to adapt to the new style of customer. Indie operators take note: there may be a Blaze, Pieology, &pizza or MOD Pizza coming soon to a market near you, if there isn’t already. 

“You could spin everything we’re doing as a big shift or adding a bunch of new stuff,” Burns says. “Really, though, what we’re doing is going back to our roots, being unapologetic about who we are, and finding the right people to help move this thing forward.”

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