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Project Pie plots a future without Papa

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Three years ago, Project Pie founder and CEO James Markham parted ways with his prior fast-casual pizza concepts, MOD Pizza and Pieology, to focus exclusively on Project Pie, which he calls the 2.0 version of those brands.

“Our goal is to be the anti-chain chain, so each store looks and feels a little bit different,” Markham said. Among its signatures, he says, will be standout service.

But Markham is working toward that goal without the involvement of the chain that has consistently won every restaurant preference award in recent history, including the top slot in the last two installments of RB’s annual Chain Restaurant Consumers’ Choice ranking, which is based on surveys conducted by Technomic. Papa Murphy’s recently sold its stake in Project Pie, which it bought in 2013 after the prototype opened at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.

Still, on a call with analysts earlier this year, Papa Murphy’s CEO Ken Calwell said he believes there is strong value in the Project Pie brand, as well as the fast-casual pizza category as a whole.

“[Papa Murphy’s was] a great partner, and I appreciate the fact that they still continue to support us,” Markham said.

Meanwhile, the concept is evolving. Project Pie recently incorporated salads into its build-your-own concept and will soon introduce coffee drinks, alcoholic beverages, adult milkshakes and dessert items.

“Whenever we introduce new items, we make sure that we’re not adding complexity, as it can take away from our bottom line,” said Markham. “We want to do things where we bring in the higher-quality foods but do not raise our labor costs or burden the guests with higher prices.”

The concept is also switching to ingredients like pancetta.

The concept already stocks 26 toppings that customers can choose to customize their pies, with the average pizza selling for $7.85 and $8.50. Federal documents indicate that the menu generates annual sales per unit of about $1.4 million.

Markham says his experiences with the earlier fast-casual pizza concepts have taught him how to better run Project Pie. Each location staffs about 25 people throughout a week, with about eight employees on the clock during peak times. Typical location footprints run around 2,000 square feet, and according to Markham, construction costs have been reduced significantly from upwards of $450,000 to less than $300,000.

“Playing with the design and having the experience of building stores has really helped with cost reduction, as we now understand how to value-engineer things and can build more stores,” he said.

The company doesn’t offer delivery, a decision Markham says is based on experience considerations rather than cost and logistical concerns. “Some concepts are boring and stale but our concept has life to it,” he said.

One of the company’s distinctions is a board that includes other big-name business builders, including chairman John Barr, former CEO of Valvoline, and director Kat Cole, a group president of Focus Brands.

“We all have a passion for what we do, so the experience for our guests is always better,” Markham said. “They’ve been great mentors and friends, and I’ve learned a lot.”

Currently, the concept has 19 locations throughout the U.S, including 14 franchised units. Two new units recently opened in California and Indiana, and three more are set to be added to the fold.

The concept has also expanded internationally, with locations in the Philippines and the U.K., and one opening in Dubai in October.

“We want to be a global brand, and it’s sexy to be in different parts of the world where people still dig your concept,” Markham said. “The recipes are the same, but we always add some local flavor because it’s the right thing to do and shows respect.”

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