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The 25 Best Pizza Franchises of 2017/2018

by Franchise Chatter on October 15, 2017

in Franchise Chatter Hot List, Pizza Franchises

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Before diving into the list of the 25 best pizza franchises, it’s good to understand how the business of pizza is changing.

Worldwide, pizza restaurants are a $128 billion industry, but a full third of that market is in the United States. Each American eats an average of 46 slices of pizza each year. A 2016 survey by The Harris Poll revealed that when people need comfort food, 15% of Americans reach for a slice of pizza first, more than twice that of any other food choice (ice cream was 7%, as was chocolate).

But there is also a wide variety of concepts within the pizza industry: delivery and carry-out, dine-in, buffet-style, fast-casual artisanal, and so on. Pizza preferences also vary by region, so the tricky part is figuring out what approaches have the most momentum in your area.

There are more than 76,000 pizzerias in the U.S., and just over half of them (55%) are independent shops (less than 10 locations). But the independents only took in 42.5% of all pizza sales in 2016, which totaled nearly $44.5 billion.

The chains (more than 10 locations) have the larger market share, which can be attributed at least in part to the fact that an increasing number of people (especially tech-savvy Millennials) want to place their pizza orders online, which can be prohibitively expensive for independents to implement. And when customers can place digital orders, they tend to spend more.

Millennials, who often think of themselves as health-conscious, eco-friendly foodies, are sustaining the new wave of fast-casual pizza chains that produce customizable, artisan, individual-sized pizzas in under five minutes, and they also tend to focus on fresher, healthier ingredients with less negative eco-impacts.

Entrepreneurs who want to buy into a franchise industry that’s showing strong growth trends would do well to consider pizza. Here are the top 25 pizza franchises that should make any short list of promising franchise opportunities.

1.  Blaze Pizza

Blaze Pizza got its start in 2012 when Rick Wetzel, a co-founder of Wetzel’s Pretzels, decided to get into the pizza game. Executive chef Bradford Kent was enlisted to perfect an 11-inch thin crust from dough allowed to ferment a full 24 hours before getting shaped into a crust, giving Blaze pies their distinctive lighter-than-air crispness. Pizza lovers then choose from among seven cheeses, eight proteins, 20 vegetables, and three sauces to customize their personal pizza. Blaze Pizza also prides itself on being the “greenest” of the fast-casual pizza chains with its focus on products made in the USA from post-consumer recycled and/or sustainable materials.

2.  MOD Pizza

MOD Pizza has its own twist on the fast-casual individual artisan pizza phenomenon that includes 3-minute bake times in 800-degree ovens, flat-rate pricing no matter how many toppings customers choose for their MOD (made-on-demand) pizzas or customizable salads, a family-friendly DIY vibe, and unique locally-inspired décor at each of its more than 215 locations. Founded in 2008 by Scott and Ally Svenson in Seattle, WA, MOD Pizza calls itself a “purpose-led” chain with a focus on paying livable wages to employees while also giving them opportunities to give back to the community.

3.  Domino’s

Domino’s is the second-largest pizza chain with more than 13,800 locations around the world and annual gross sales topping $9.6 billion. Dating back to 1960, the chain was among the first to popularize home delivery and now delivers more than a million pizzas every day, with Halloween being its busiest delivery day of the year. Domino’s has done well by keeping up with the times in terms of technology, with well over half of its sales being digital orders. Founder Tom Monaghan retired in 1993 and sold 93% of the private company to Bain Capital, and Domino’s subsequently went public in 2004.

4.  Pieology

Pieology was started in 2011 by Carl Chang and serial pizza entrepreneur James Markham (Knockout Pizza, New York Style Pizza in China, MOD Pizza, and Project Pie, the last of which was just acquired by Pieology last year). Pieology famously claims it can help customers create more than 78 billion pizza possibilities from its 40 different choices in toppings, which are sourced locally whenever possible on a menu that also reflects local trends and tastes. Pieology’s 100+ locations emphasize people coming together over food and offer a place where sharing a meal is an act of love.

5.  Toppers Pizza

Toppers Pizza is a Midwestern chain that got its start back in the early 1990s. Its competitive advantage is found in targeting college students and the 18-34 crowd interested in late-night pizza delivery and carry-out, with most stores staying open until 3:00 a.m. or later. Its messaging and presentation reflect this with anti-corporate language. In addition to pizza, the chain offers seven styles of Topperstix (breadsticks) and seven different versions of buffalo wings. Founded by Scott Gittrich after he became frustrated with the national pizza chain he worked for, Toppers currently has more than 70 locations.

6.  Papa John’s

Papa John’s is the fourth-largest pizza chain in the U.S. with more than 4,900 locations around the world generating more than $3.49 billion in annual gross sales. The true legend of how the chain got its start dates back to 1984 when founder John Schnatter sold his beloved 1972 Camaro Z28 for $2,800 in order to keep his father’s tavern open and convert it into a pizza shop. Like Domino’s, Papa John’s is focused primarily on takeout and delivery rather than in-store dining. It was also one of the first national chains to make online ordering available chain-wide in 2002.

7.  Little Caesars

Little Caesars is the nation’s third-largest pizza chain with 4,000+ locations and annual gross sales in excess of $3.5 billion. It was founded in 1959 by Mike Ilitch, a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers farm team at the time, and his wife Marian, and the first store that started it all in Garden City is still open today. In addition to its well-known catch-phrase of “Pizza! Pizza!” and square pizzas, Little Caesars broke new ground in 2004 with the introduction of its “Hot-N-Ready” concept, a large one-topping pizza sold for $5. The offering was a huge success and drove the chain to focus more on carryout than delivery or in-store dining.

8.  Cicis

Cicis is among the top 10 pizza chains by size, and is the largest to be based on a pizza buffet concept. Created in 1985 by Joe Croce and Mike Cole in Plano, TX, the chain now has 500+ locations that collectively generate more than $475 million in annual gross sales. The pizza buffet at Cicis features several types of pizza, including traditional, deep-dish, rectangular flatbread, and stuffed crust. The chain is also known for offering distinctively unique creations such as macaroni and cheese pizza and its latest idea – various flavors of wings as pizza toppings.

9.  Marco’s Pizza

Marco’s Pizza first appeared on the scene in Oregon, OH, founded by Italian immigrant Pasquale “Pat” Giammarco in 1978, making it the only major American pizza chain to be started by a native Italian. Giammarco came to the U.S. with his family when he was nine and grew up in Dearborn, MI, working at the family pizzeria, which is where he and his father created the sauce recipe still used today at the chain’s 800+ locations that generate annual gross sales exceeding $462 million. Restaurant industry guru Jack Butorac took over the chain in 2004 when it had just 123 locations and grew it into the national chain it is today.

10.  Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut is the undisputed king of all the pizza chains with more than 16,000 locations around the world generating more than $13.7 billion in annual gross sales, and the only pizza franchise known better for its red-roof architecture than anything else. Founded in 1958 by Dan and Frank Carney in Wichita, KS, Pizza Hut is now a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc., one of the world’s largest restaurant companies. The chain constantly experiments with new menu offerings, which has resulted in such successful innovations as the stuffed-crust pizza in 1995, and the large rectangular Bigfoot pizza of the early 1990s.

11.  Pie Five Pizza Co.

Pie Five Pizza Co. was started in 2011 by Rave Restaurant Group as part of the new wave of quick-made handcrafted personal pizzas, with the “five” in the company’s name referring to the length of time it takes to prepare a pizza at the chain, which now has more than 100 locations in 20 states. It offers unlimited topping choices at one price to go with its four made-fresh-daily crusts that include gluten-free, classic pan, crispy thin, and traditional Italian and seven different sauces. The menu is rounded out with both hand-made salads and desserts.

12.  Your Pie

Your Pie founder Drew French’s eyes were opened to new pizza possibilities while honeymooning on the small Italian island of Ischia in 2006. Two years later, the first Your Pie opened in Athens, GA. Now with 60 locations, the chain fits into the customizable artisan fast-casual pizza niche with fresh dough made from scratch daily, brick ovens for baking, and 35 different ingredients from which customers can choose to top their 10-inch pizza. Pizza lovers can also choose one of Your Pie’s seven signature pies as well as order custom panini sandwiches. Creative promotions and new pizza creations round out this growing chain.

13.  Hungry Howie’s

Hungry Howie’s first opened in 1973, but didn’t start franchising until 1983. The chain’s claim to fame is being “Home of the Flavored Crust Pizza;” it is one of the first pizza chains to create flavored crusts, which it launched back in 1985 with eight different flavors. Current flavored crusts at the chain include Original, Garlic Herb, Onion, Cajun, Butter, Butter Cheese, Sesame, Ranch, Italian Herb, and Asiago. Customers can also request combinations of crust flavors. In addition to pizza, the menu at Hungry Howie’s includes calzone-style subs, chicken wings and tenders, bread, salads, and brownies at its more than 550 locations, making it the 11th largest pizza chain in the U.S.

14.  PizzaRev

PizzaRev was launched in Los Angeles by Irv Zuckerman and Nicholas Eckerman, the former co-CEOs of the radio empire Clear Channel Media. Their aim in 2012 was to ride the “pizzarev-olution” wave of craft-your-own individual-sized artisan pizzas sweeping the nation. Now with 46 locations in the U.S. and Mexico, PizzaRev’s potential for scale and growth recently attracted former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson and his venture-capital firm, Cleveland Avenue, to purchase a majority stake in the fast-growing chain. PizzaRev offers 11-inch pizzas crafted with original or gluten-free doughs, both of which are vegan, baked in under three minutes in 900-degree ovens.

15.  Papa Murphy’s

Papa Murphy’s is the nation’s fifth-largest pizza chain with 1,500+ locations and annual gross sales approaching $900 million. Its distinction is being the only national-scale pizza chain based solely on “take and bake” pizzas assembled in the store but baked at home. It was founded in 1995 when Terry Collins acquired and consolidated two existing chains, Papa Aldo’s Pizza and Murphy’s Pizza. Papa Murphy’s emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients, noting its stores do not have freezers, dough is made fresh daily from scratch, 100% whole-milk mozzarella cheese is grated daily, and veggies are hand-sliced.

16.  MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza

MidiCi Neapolitan Pizza differentiates itself in the fast-casual artisan pizza niche by its devotion to the 300-year-old tradition of Neapolitan pizza-making, which is defined by fresh dough made from scratch with only four ingredients (zero or double zero flour, water, sea salt, and live brewer’s yeast), hand-stretched, and baked for 60-90 seconds in a wood-fired oven maintained at a temperature of at least 905°F. The chain can also be described as “upscale” fast-casual in its approach and ambiance, including its open, center-staged kitchen. Founded in 2015 by Menchie’s frozen yogurt CEO Amit Kleinberger, there are now a dozen locations, with many more in the works.

17.  Uno Pizzeria & Grill

Uno Pizzeria & Grill dates all the way back to 1943 in Chicago when Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo popularized the deep-dish pizza concept, although whether or not they invented the idea is disputed. Franchising began in 1978 and at its height the chain boasted more than 200 locations. It has dipped as low as 130 and is now at about 155. It has undergone menu expansions and contractions as well as several name changes over the years as it struggles to establish its identity and brand. Throughout its ups and downs, however, Uno remains the chain most closely associated with deep-dish pizza.

18.  Rosati’s Pizza

Rosati’s Pizza comes from a long history of restaurant activity in the Rosati family dating back to their first restaurant in New York City in the 1890s. At the dawn of the 20th century, the family moved to Chicago, opened more restaurants and started experimenting with pizza. Franchising began in 1979 and now the chain has 160 locations, mostly in and around Chicago but also scattered throughout 13 other states. Its main pizza offerings include Chicago Deep Dish, Chicago Thin Crust, and Double-Dough Pizzas. Also on the menu are calzones, pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads, and desserts. Most locations use deck slate ovens rather than conveyor ovens.

19.  Jet’s Pizza

Jet’s Pizza has been around since 1978, but it’s not well-known outside the state of Michigan. At the time, brothers Eugene and John Jetts decided to bring Detroit-style pizza (square deep-dish) further north of the city to Sterling Heights. Nearly half of the chain’s 400+ locations are in Michigan while the other half are scattered throughout 20 different states. Although Detroit-style pizza is the main attraction, Jet’s also does NY-style thin crust. It also has two different interesting types of sandwiches – the Jetzee, which is like a grilled panini but it’s made with their deep-dish dough as the bread, and the Boat, also made from their pizza dough like a calzone, but open on one side.

20.  Pizza Factory

Pizza Factory has been making hand-tossed thick-crust round pizzas since 1979 when the first location was opened in Oakhurst, CA by Danny and Carol Wheeler under the name Danny’s Red Devil Pizza. Ron and Joyce Willey opened a second location with the name Pizza Factory, which became the company name when they started franchising the concept in 1986. The chain has 100+ locations in six west coast states: CA, OR, WA, AZ, NV, and ID. Menus for this chain vary by location, but in addition to pizza most also offer calzones, salads, breads, wings, pastas, and sandwiches.

21.  Ledo Pizza

Ledo Pizza got its start in Adelphi, MD when the first location opened in 1955, but franchising didn’t start until 1979. Ledo still makes its pizza the same way it did when it started, rolled to order from fresh-made dough and baked in rectangular pans. As it says on the company website, “It may take a little longer, but it sure is worth it.” Ledo’s is also known for its extra-thickly sliced pepperoni. In addition to pizza, the Ledo menu includes appetizers, salads, calzones, stromboli, a variety of subs and sandwiches, Italian entrées, and soups. Its focus is on dine-in and carry-out, not delivery.

22.  Fox’s Pizza Den

Fox’s Pizza Den was the dream of Jim Fox who started with salvaged equipment and a rented storeroom to open the first location back in 1971 in Pitcairn, PA, and was among the first pizza chains in the Pittsburgh area to offer home delivery. He started franchising in 1974 and now there are more than 200 locations in 25 states, but more than half are in the chain’s home state of Pennsylvania. Fox’s offers pizza, hoagies, salads, sides, stromboli, and “wedgies,” which are sandwiches where the bread is a nine-inch pizza crust cut in half.

23.  Villa Italian Kitchen

Villa Italian Kitchen began in 1964 next to the CBS/Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway when founder Michele “Michael” Scotto brought his authentic old-world recipes from Naples, Italy to New York City. Now there are more than 300 locations, all of which are committed to quality ingredients, homemade dough, and genuine hospitality. The chain remains a family-owned business and is now under the leadership of Michele’s two sons, Biagio “Ben” Scotto and Anthony Scotto. The menu features Neapolitan-style pizza, pan pizza, and stuffed pizzas along with calzones, stromboli, salads, wings, sides, Italian entrées, breakfast foods, and desserts.

24.  Flippin’ Pizza

Flippin’ Pizza is a pizza chain that offers New York-style pies and slices. As the website explains, their pizza is “Not deep dish, not super artisanal, just your honest, old school, ‘I’m-from-Brooklyn-and-you’re-not’ pizza,” along with a healthy dose of New York attitude. It says the secret to New York pizza is the water used in making the dough, so the chain uses a special filtration system that mimics New York water in terms of PH balance and mineral content (calcium, magnesium, etc.). In addition to pizza, the chain offers five sides, four salads, and three calzones.

25.  Happy Joe’s

Happy Joe’s understands that pizza is the number-one comfort food for Americans, and ice cream comes in at a close second, which is why the full name of this chain is Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream Parlor, started by founder Joe Whitty back in 1972 in the Village of East Davenport, IA. He was aiming for not just a family-oriented restaurant but one that was very kid-oriented as well – hence the pizza and ice cream combination. One claim to fame is inventing the Taco Pizza, which has become a best-selling menu item. The chain’s 61 locations are mostly located in the Midwest.

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