Is the Chipotle Model Transforming Chain Pizza?


[Photograph: Todd Brock]

Just wanted to bring everyone's attention to Lance Robert's review of 800 Degrees (L.A.) from yesterday—especially the comments section. In case you missed the post, here's a link, check it out. Or if you prefer the Cliff's Notes version: There is a new Neapolitan-style pizzeria in LA that is employing the assembly-line Chipotle/Subway concept. The good news is you can get Neapolitan pizza, which there is clearly not enough of in L.A. to begin with, at very reasonable prices (like $6.50), and they have better than average topping choices. The bad news is that they are not consistent—AT ALL, particularly in the dough department with pies ranging from pretty good, to bland and flavorless, to blond and under-baked, to totally blackened.

But what's getting people talking is the concept itself. As Lance pointed out in the post, this isn't an original idea. Punch Pizza in Minneapolis has been running this style of pizzeria since the 90s. The rub for L.A. Pizza Maven is that this concept has no place marring the Neapolitan species of pizza. If you want an artisan pizza, you pay for an artisan pizza. Redfish echoes the sentiment of not being willing to take a gamble on a mediocre Neapolitan pie, and adds that the concept doesn't have much hope of taking off because:

"Build a better burrito" makes sense to me because most places in the U.S. only have Taco Bell, but "Build a fast Neapolitan" I don't see catching on outside of the big cities, most people would be grateful just to get some decent pizza of any sort.

Just to give you a lay of the land regarding this concept, it reaches beyond Punch and 800 Degrees. There are at least six franchises, that I know of, that are building off of this model, though most emphasize the "artisan" angle rather than trying to go the Neapolitan route. Our man in Atlanta, Todd Brock covered Your Pie, the southeastern chain that builds Neapolitan-inspired pies at over 14 locations in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Pieology is just emerging in Irvine and Fullerton, California. The folks behind Seattle Coffee Co. have also gotten into the pizza game with their build-your-own franchise called MOD (short for made on demand), which features "artisan-style" pies all under $7 (more on their story here). The Moe's Southwest Grill guy started Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint in 2009, and their website boasts that they have 70 stores under development! Top That! Pizza (where pizza gets personal) is staking out the southwest and western territories with stores in Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado. Pizza Inn has also gotten in on the concept with Pie Five, named such because you can get your custom made pie in 5 minutes or less. All these places share in common constructing the pizzas assembly-line style in front of the customer, lots of topping options (most with a locally-sourced, sustainable, or organic spin), making dough or sauce in house daily, quick bake times in 500-800 degree ovens, and pizzas priced under $7.

Adam's take on all this (from the comments section) was, "THIS IS NEW CLOTHES ON AN OLD DOLL. Americans are WELL ACQUAINTED with the concept of specifying which toppings go on their pizzas." He goes on to say that while it may not be the most exciting thing in pizza, it is certainly clever marketing.

I asked Ed his thoughts on the whole concept and he had this to say:

I think what's most interesting about all of this is the idea that someone is trying to make and scale something that is considered so artisanal and the definition of handmade and personal. The fact that they can build their own pizza is just an appealing and fun by-product of how fast the pizzas cook and how the line is set up.

Talking about this in terms of Neapolitan pizza in one thing, but what about in terms of chain pizza? To me the concept certainly sound like a step up from (stealing this term from Adam) the Papa Dominohut? Can these franchises do for pizza in America what Chipotle did for the fast food burrito? I was raised in a pizza starved part of the country where the only options were the chains. It's not surprising to me that two of the five franchises listed above are basing their operations in the southeastern United States. It's a pizza wasteland outside of the few metropolitan areas. If people are going to buy chain pizza anyway, and especially if that is all they have ever known, then maybe these restaurants have the potential to raise the pizza bar.

Does this concept make any sense for pizza? Does it have transformative powers for good or evil? Or is it just clever marketing that is re-packaging pizza in the fast casual landscape? What's your opinion on this trending pizza concept?