Pizza is a surprisingly controversial subject — even among people who love it. New York style or Chicago; plain cheese or with toppings; if toppings, which toppings; is pineapple ever a good idea; is white pizza really pizza; is eating with a fork ever appropriate (no) — there are scores of pizza arguments out there as connoisseurs, casual fans and children under the age of 10 everywhere are all united in a single, unattainable goal.
Finding that perfect slice.
It is perhaps unsurprising in the era of food innovation that so many startups have gone after the holy grail of proper pizza creation. Newcomers &Pizza, MOD and Pieology have all attracted a fair amount of attention over the last several years. Some of the really out-of-the-box ideas include Zume Pizza — a robotics startup that puts a machine in the driver’s seat when it comes to make a pizza (recipe development, food prep and pizza tasting are left to humans) — managed to raised $50 million in VC funding about 18 months ago.
And those are just the startups. Incumbent players like Domino’s and Pizza Hut have been investing heavily and consistently in expanding their mobile ordering platforms, autonomous vehicle applications for delivery and rewards offerings. Little Caesars has even patented a pizza-making robot.
Pizza is a crowded innovators’ party to hang out at, as it turns out, and standing out in the crowd is not easy. And yet, Blaze Pizza, founded by Elise and Rick Wetzel in 2011 has managed to do so. It’s gone from two California locations at founding to about 304 franchise locations nationwide; its investor list include LeBron James (who reportedly ditched a McDonald’s deal to get on board) as well as Maria Shriver and Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner.
The chain concept is successful mostly because it takes pizza from being almost a necessarily group purchase (unless one in willing to settle for a simple slice of cheese or pepperoni) into a personalized, individual item good for lunch on the go. The brand was founded on the theory that it could be the Chipotle of pizza.
Customers enter, pick their personalized perfect toppings from a list of standard and semi-exotic (balsamic glaze, roast vegetables) ingredients (all of which are reportedly high-quality) before being quick-fired and ready to eat in about three minutes. Blaze Pizza is not quite the only startup with this model — artisanal ingredients on personalized pizzas has a few variants in the startup world, but Blaze is the largest and best known.
“From the very first restaurants we opened, we had this vision that we were going to grow it to a thousand,” Elise Wetzel, the company’s chief marketing officer, told INC.
Part of that is good luck and good timing — Blaze appeared on the scene just as the world was looking at every imaginable quick-service restaurant (QSR) food product and wondering if there could be a more innovative way to do it.
Part of it, however, is long experience and an advantage in securing the right partners to signal boost the brand. If the name Wetzel sounds familiar to you, it is likely because you have experienced Rick Wetzel’s last foray into the world of comfort food: Wetzel’s Pretzels.
As a co-founder in that business, he connected with film producer John Davis, who invested in Wetzel’s, and celebrity financial adviser Paul Wachter. They helped Wetzel’s make the connection that got Blaze Pizza all of that early celebrity backing.
And if you are wondering how much the LeBron James endorsement is worth — it’s quite a lot. With 91 million social media followers across the platform, the LeBron boost has been a major differentiator for Blaze and allowed it to grow faster further than its rivals in the reinvention of pizza.
“LeBron helps us punch in terms of our brand awareness well above our weight,” said Blaze Pizza CEO Jim Mizes.
And with all that bigger punching strength, the plan forward for Blaze is more growth. The firm is projected to bring in over $400 million in sales this year, and is looking to double that over the next give. It is also reportedly looking toward a future IPO, though there is no specific timeline for that in play.