You wouldn’t blame Jim Mizes if he sounded a little giddy. After all, on the day he scheduled an interview with Franchise Chatter, the relatively new president and chief operating officer of Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza had three restaurants opening on the same day as a way to cap off his first year at the helm of the company. But perhaps Mizes is simply able to mask any giddiness in his voice. Instead, he answers questions steadfastly and with confidence in the Blaze concept, brand and product.
“It’s very possible that we will open 100 restaurants per year by the end of 2015,” Mizes says.
Shortly into the interview, he can’t help but boast about the day’s milestone for the company. With the three separate openings (one in Bethesda, Md., a second store in Indianapolis and a third one in the Los Angeles market), Blaze Pizza has become the leader in its white-hot category—fast-casual, custom pizza—in terms of number of units, which today totals 29.
Hundreds of Stores in Pipeline
And there are hundreds more where those came from—literally. Blaze Pizza ended last year wielding a pipeline stuffed with plans for 239 franchised restaurants across 19 states, including multi-unit agreements in California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Washington, D.C.
Saddles Blazin’ LLC, a subsidiary of Paradigm Investment Group, signed an agreement to develop 19 franchise locations across a southern corridor that includes Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; OC Enterprises LLC signed an area development agreement to open six Blaze Pizza restaurants in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Blaze struck a deal earlier this year with franchisee Sajha LLC, one of its original Southern California developers, to establish stores in the Phoenix area.
By the end of 2013, Blaze had also opened its first Chicago unit in a city considered a bastion of good pizza, including the signature thick-crust Chicago-style pie. Thin-crusted Blaze is so on fire that the company has said it expects to reach its goal of 1,000 units within a decade, becoming a national brand. Not bad for a company that only started in 2012 with one unit.
If Blaze seems in a race to become the first fast-casual, custom pizza brand in key markets, it’s also out to build brand loyalty early by serving up customized pizzas made with fresh toppings as guests glide along a Chipotle-style serving line and receive their pie quickly after just 180 seconds in a super-heated stone oven.
Blaze Recognized as Innovator
The company has been a leader right out of the gate. During the first quarter of 2014, Business Insider identified 35 companies that are changing the way people shop and eat by revolutionizing retail. It included Blaze on the list and in publishing an abridged version, MSN Money called 10 of the listed companies, including Blaze, “innovators…changing how business gets done, affecting consumers’ habits and improving their experiences.”
“It’s all about culture,” Mizes says about the secret to the Blaze magic. “We like to say we sweat the details, even in how we refer to our employees (as “pizzaolos” and “pizzasmiths”). We’re talking about an elevated experience, including with our people.”
The company has barely dangled a carrot on a stick for investors and already it has attracted some top franchisees around the country who recognize that Blaze is a pizza franchise with pedigree.
Rick and Elise Wetzel of the $65 million Wetzel’s Pretzels chain are behind Blaze and still have active roles in how the company is run. The company is looking for investors and groups of investors who are interested in developing whole territories rather than single units.
Those would be people like Wayne Albritton, president of the Millennial Restaurant Group, which brought Blaze Pizza to the Louisville, Ky., market with additional stores planned for Tennessee and Florida. Albritton talked to PizzaMarketplace.com earlier this year about why the investors in his company were attracted to the Blaze franchise plan over many other custom pizza brands in the burgeoning category.
“To me, Blaze is the most buttoned up,” he said in a Q&A. “The systems and the franchising is in place. It is run by professionals in the industry. It was just a complete package. That’s not to mention the menu—developed by Brad Kent—the
décor is edgy, the atmosphere is friendly and fun. And the entire segment is appealing. Americans love their pizza and the fact that this is different, they can make what they want and get it quickly, is appealing.”
In addition to offering a chef-driven product, Blaze also counts a celebrity among the franchisee rank and file. The expansion of the brand into South Florida is being accomplished by an investment group that will be led by Levy Family Partners, a company created by restaurant entrepreneur Larry Levy, founder of Levy Restaurants. In addition to a 10-store franchise development agreement in Florida, the group is developing the Chicago market. The investment group includes NBA all-star basketball player LeBron James.
“We’re honored that LeBron and his advisors chose us,” Mizes said. “We like being associated with winners.”
Meanwhile, the Blaze product, its management team of experienced franchisors, the design of its stores and emphasis on the customer experience are considered a winning combination by analysts.
“It’s the whole gestalt, when it comes together, that we think will differentiate us,” Mizes said.
Forecast as Front-Runner
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. market research firm for the restaurant industry, has said he expects Blaze to be one of the leaders in the custom-pizza category, along with competitor PizzaRev. He expounded on that prediction for Franchise Chatter.
“With the hot growth opportunity in the under served, fast-casual pizza segment, several new upstart brands will race for category leadership and dominance,” Tristano said. “History has shown us that early entry and rapid growth can generate strong brand loyalty among consumers, increased franchise interest, sustainable growth and competitive advantage. We’ve seen that with Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread, Panda Express and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Although several regional chains are pushing nationally, Blaze Pizza appears to be one of the front-runners for success with nearly 30 units and on pace to have 50 stores open by year-end 2014.”
Mizes, 58, joined the Blaze team in June 2013 and is all about making sure the company stays on track to meet its short-term and long-term goals. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a masters in finance from UCLA, he has spent the last 20-plus years working to scale and build new brands. He began in operations in the late 1980s with Taco Bell, pioneering the 59/79/99 cent menu of the early ’90s that changed the value equation for fast food.
Later, Mizes shifted to working with founders, first with Noah’s Bagels for four years as the chain grew from 10 to 130 restaurants. He later moved to Jamba Juice as vice president of brand development and store operations, and supported growth from 50 to 450 restaurants over five years. He has served as president of Freebirds World Burrito, and helped build a regional health club company over 10 years. He keeps the lessons he learned from working with other brands to guide him in his decisions at Blaze.
“I think starting with some of the early brands in big companies that I worked for taught me two things: it’s all about systems and the employment of them in a large company,” he said.