Rick Wetzel isn’t afraid to take on his industry’s biggest player.
The co-founder of Blaze Pizza, speaking on the Restaurant Business podcast “A Deeper Dive” this week, made it clear who his chain is gunning for: Domino’s Pizza.
“I’m chomping at the bit,” he said. “I’ve been building for this for seven years. I’m ready to go head-to-head. I’m ready.”
Not that long ago, such competition was not really there. Blaze is a fast-casual pizza chain: It's big at lunch and specializes in individual, customized pizzas. Customers largely went into the restaurant and ate their pizzas there. Domino’s is a traditional pizza chain that focuses on delivery and takeout, with its products largely targeted at groups or families. They have been fundamentally different occasions.
The pizza giant has not really concerned itself with the rise of fast-casual pizza chains: It hasn’t mentioned the trend in at least two years on earnings calls, according to a search of transcripts on financial services site Sentieo.
But consumer trends have been putting fast-casual pizza players into the giant’s path. Specifically, diners are demanding more takeout. That has forced many fast-casual pizza chains to get more aggressive to serve this group.
Blaze is working with multiple delivery players, and it’s adding more technology. But it’s also testing larger pies. That pits it directly against chains such as Domino’s that have specialized in that group for years.
Indeed, individual pies don’t work as well for delivery or off-premise as larger pizzas do. “A lot of off-premise is in a shareable format,” Wetzel said.
As such, the company’s foray into more delivery, along with large and even medium pizzas, means it will go up directly against Domino’s. Wetzel believes the market is ready. “There’s a huge opportunity to go at Domino’s in particular,” he said. “Their core benefit is convenience. It’s not quality of food.”
Consumers, he said, are demanding better options, and the advent of third-party delivery could help eliminate that convenience gap.
It’s here where we note that a chain like Blaze has a long way to go. Last year, the company generated $327 million in system sales, up 20% from the previous year, according to data from Restaurant Business sister company Technomic.
Domino’s generated $6.6 billion. It is more than 21 times Blaze’s size.
Still, chains such as Blaze and its own rival, MOD Pizza, as well as &pizza, are well-funded, and they are increasingly looking at delivery as a vehicle to fuel their growth.
Domino’s, meanwhile, has started to show some cracks in its considerable armor: Same-store sales rose just 3% last quarter, and all on price rather than traffic.
The company has also shifted its tone on third-party delivery, acknowledging that heavy marketing of the service has eaten into its business.
Further competition from growing fast-casual chains can only pose a larger threat.
Wetzel, for his part, believes that fast-casual pizza chains adding delivery can one day take down the larger legacy players, and he likened it to what “Starbucks did to Maxwell House” and what “Netflix did to Blockbuster.”
“We’re going to go right at them, and I’m thrilled to do it,” he said. “I think third-party delivery is going to take down the legacy players. I really do.”