The Race to Be the Chipotle of Pizza

One of a team of professional Neapolitan pizza makers throws dough to give away free pizza margheritas in Dante square in downtown Naples, on Aug. 27, 2008.

Photo by ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images

The new hotness in the chain restaurant industry is “fast casual” dining—basically fast food places that are a bit more expensive and a bit better than the traditional offerings. Chipotle is the biggest recent business success in this area, but in some ways the most interesting success stories are places like 5 Guys, Shake Shack, Smashburger, and other participants in the so called “better burger” category. They show that you don’t really need to invent a whole new genre of restaurant to build a successful business.

So one natural question is what other cuisines are ripe for the kind of explosion of upscaling that we’ve seen in the burger industry? Sam Oches posits that the answer is pizza and profiles nine newish chains that are trying to dominate the emerging fast casual pizza space.

They all take advantage of one very significant and very salient fact—it’s in the very nature of some of the most traditional forms of pizza making that the pizza is supposed to be cooked very quickly. Not to restart the home-cooked pizza wars, but the basic shape of the story is that Neapolitan pizza cookery is a capital intensive business. You want good crust and good sauce, obviously, but you also need to cook it very fast in a very hot oven. So the whole situation is ideally set up for one in which a business owner places bulk orders of pizza ovens and then cooks personal-sized pizzas at a rapid pace. This is obviously somewhat different from the formats in which Americans have traditionally eaten pizza (delivery, slices) but it makes perfect sense. It’s also well-aligned with the fact that even though the best American pizza is still concentrated in the pizza belt where the Italian-American population is large, there’s been an enormous growth of interest in quality pizza all around the country over the past decade. People are ready for a pie that, while perhaps not ready to win any awards in New Haven, will be light-years ahead of what Dominoes and Papa Johns have to offer.