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The race is on to become the “Chipotle of pizza”

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Consumers, Millennials report strong visitation, interest according to Datassential

Market heats up

Consumers line up at Blaze Pizza

With the true “Chipotle of pizza” title up for grabs, the race to saturate the fast casual pizza market continues to heat up — and consumers are interested, according to Datassential‘s upcoming Creative Concepts TrendSpotting Report, which covers these pizza concepts in-depth. While new concepts are announced seemingly every day, over 25 brands are already operating in the market, many with franchise plans that project hundreds and even thousands of units. Even Chipotle wants to be the Chipotle of pizza, partnering with Denver-based Pizzeria Locale to test and develop the concept, with plans to open more in the future.

The hallmarks of almost every concept come directly from Chipotle — chute-style, customizable ordering; fresh, premium, unique ingredients (broccolini, gorgonzola, ancient grain crusts); a price point just above QSRs (usually around $7 for a 10-to-12-inch pie); fast preparation (cooked in extremely hot ovens for about 5 minutes); and a generally more upscale experience targeting both lunch and dinner occasions, with rustic wood tables, digital menu boards showcasing high-quality photography, and even wine and craft beer.

The concept and aggressive expansion strategy seem to be working: over one third of consumers reported having already visited a fast casual pizza operator, and 71% were interested.

Millenials show strong interest

While Millennials’ passion for food experimentation is often overstated, this is one concept where operators aren’t wrong to target the market. Datassential’s research showed that Millennials were far more likely to have already visited a fast casual pizza restaurant than non-Millennials (45% vs. 28%). They were also far more interested in venturing beyond marinara and adding sriracha, Buffalo, or BBQ sauce to their pizza, and were more open to unique toppings, like mashed potatoes, or out-of-the-box pizza concepts, like the cannoli pizza at San Diego-based Social Life Pizza.

But consumers overall are more interested in the premium, unique ingredients available at these concepts: two thirds wanted to try whole wheat crusts and smoked chicken, over half were interested in shrimp and ricotta as toppings, and over one third were interested in topping their pizza with an egg, oyster mushrooms, or roasted corn. Live Basil Pizza, developed by the founders of Smashburger, says their arugula, truffle, and wild mushroom pizza is one of the top three sellers (when Datassential tested it with over 1,000 consumers, nearly half said they wanted to try it).

And it’s not just Chipotle and Smashburger that are seeing an opportunity to expand their fast casual footprints — Blaze Pizza is a rapidly expanding concept from the founders of Wetzel’s Pretzels, Uncle Maddio’s is the creation of the cofounder and former president of Moe’s Southwest Grill, 800 Degrees is backed by the company behind Umami Burger, Pizza Rev counts Buffalo Wild Wings as a high-profile investor, and The Pizza Studio was founded by former Burger King and Baja Fresh executive Ron Biskin.

Premium and customized

Fast casual pizza concepts fit into the larger customization and “premium-ization” trend in foodservice as a whole. Better burger concepts continue to expand in tandem, while both QSRs (White Castle, McDonald’s) and casual dining chains (Chili’s, Applebee’s) experiment with technology to give consumers more control over their orders. Pizza has always been customizable, but now a “family of four can come to Your Pie and each get what they want,” as the brand’s founder told Fast Casual. And because the available options often include healthier ingredients like kale or gluten-free crusts, coupled with “health halo” terms like “fresh” and “natural,” fast casual concepts often have a “better-for-you” brand awareness, whether customers choose those options or not. Transparency is also key — customizing and cooking food directly in front of the customer is the rule. And other brands are noticing; Domino’s recently announced their new “Pizza Theater” remodel concept, which prioritizes sight lines into the kitchen.

C-stores and supermarkets respond

It’s not just restaurant operators forced to up their pizza game — c-stores and supermarket prepared food departments are taking lessons from the premium pizza market as part of each segment’s revitalization efforts. Casey’s General Store showcases their made-from-scratch pizza, making it both the country’s 10th largest c-store chain and 5th largest pizza chain, and they recently announced more locations for their pizza-only Pizza Express stores. And wood-fire ovens are becoming increasingly common in supermarket prepared food departments. Datassential’s recent Keynote Report, Supermarket Prepared Foods: Evolution Toward a True Foodservice Model, showed that pizza was a consistent growth opportunity for operators. One survey respondent, when asked why they purchased food from prepared food department, responded, “[Springfield, Mass.-based] Big Y opened a pizza shop in the store nearest to me and it is fantastic!” Big Y prominently advertises their “Pizza Shop” concept featuring fresh-made dough, whole milk mozzarella, and a sauce made of vine-ripened tomatoes “especially grown for Big Y” that are “packed within 4 hours of being picked.”


Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a leading supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry.  Its TrendSpotting reports provide food companies with trend ideas from early-stage inception through late-stage ubiquity, and it’s all backed by MenuTrends, the industry’s largest and most trusted menu database. For more information about Datassential, ordering Creative Concepts: Fast Casual Pizza, or any of the content found in this report, contact Webster at [email protected].