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Cheers to customization

Why build-your-own fast casuals—especially pizza concepts—are a parent’s dream.

I begin this column with a disclaimer: I don’t eat cheese. It’s something my co-workers tease me relentlessly about. (“What kind of restaurant editor doesn’t like cheese?!”) But it’s the one food aversion that has endured my entire life.

So you may be surprised to learn that I’m no less a fan of build-your-own restaurant concepts than the masses of consumers who have helped propel the category to rock-star status in the industry. Practically all of these restaurants, it seems, have cheese as a key ingredient, whether it’s the shredded white stuff of Chipotle’s burritos, the crumbly feta that tops the salads and wraps at those red-hot Mediterranean fast casuals or the mozzarella (or, in some cases, fancy Gorgonzola) that overspreads the top of pies peddled by the ever-growing crop of DIY pizza places—three of which appear at or near the top of this year’s The Future 50 (see Page 50).

I’m a customization fan. And it’s not just because I’m a picky eater who likes to have it her way. It’s because, as a working mom, these build-your-own
operations offer an opportunity to feed my kids better-for-you meals. I’ve written in this space before about how difficult it can be to get your kids to eat healthfully when you’re a busy parent trying to prioritize convenience over time in the kitchen. But the customizable menus at fast casuals deliver on both of these points.

Create-your-own concepts are so great for kids because they’re among the rare places youngsters get to make all their own decisions. Want to mix pineapples and mushrooms? Sure! Fancy yourself a vegetarian this week? No problem! Oh, now you’re a meatatarian again? Whatever. And the DIY fast-casual pizza players are the best of all worlds.

(Now, I must pause for a moment here to amend my disclaimer: Though I don’t like cheese, I do like pizza ... with cheese. It is the one exception to the rule, and it’s a quirk that sparks eye rolls and exclamations of “Seriously?!” from said co-workers.)

What makes the modern pizzerias, in particular, so family friendly is not only do children get to choose their own toppings, but what kid (or parent) doesn’t love pizza? Chains like Mod Pizza, Blaze Pizza and Pieology seem to get this. Even if some locations do offer a separate kids’ menu, they don’t speak of it publicly (and by publicly, I mean on their websites). They’re all too busy trumpeting the fun of their build-your-own systems or their “cheesy” (read: kid-friendly) signature pie names, such as the Lucy Sunshine on Mod’s menu, Blaze’s Green Stripe or

Pieology’s Mad to Meat You. That’s enough to win over any discerning young palate. Even one that doesn’t like cheese.*

(*Except on pizza.)

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