Pizza Inn is planning to start operating out of Pie Five locations

The pizza buffet chain plans to operate as a virtual brand out of its fast-casual sister chain starting next year.
Pizza Inn Pie Five
Pizza Inn plans to remodel 95% of its buffet locations over the next three years. | Image courtesy of Rave Restaurant Group.

Next year, Pizza Inn could start selling pizzas out of Pie Five units.

Brandon Solano, CEO of the two chains’ parent Rave Restaurant Group, said in a statement Thursday that the company plans to test operating Pizza Inn as a virtual brand inside Pie Five units starting in the company’s second fiscal quarter, or early next year.

The idea, he said, would be to “leverage Pizza inn’s latent brand equity in areas without Pizza Inn coverage to drive volume and four-wall economics.”

The comment continues the odd history of Rave and its two pizza chains. Pizza Inn, a traditional pizza buffet, created Pie Five just over a decade ago, evolving an “express” concept that would go into airports, universities and other non-traditional locations.

In the process, it helped kick off the fast-casual pizza trend. Pie Five and several other chains, notably MOD Pizza and Blaze Pizza, grew rapidly in subsequent years as part of the race to become the “Chipotle of pizza.” Pizza Inn changed its name to Rave Restaurant Group a few years later.

For Rave, the concept would theoretically help it grow as its flagship brand floundered. But consumer taste for pizza in a fast-casual format proved to be overstated, and many of those concepts struggled and shifted their attention to larger “shareable” pizzas or drive-thru units.

Pie Five has closed about two-thirds of its locations over the past five years, according to data from Restaurant Business sister company Technomic. The chain finished the most recent quarter, ended June 25, with 27 locations, five fewer than it operated at the end of 2022.

Pizza Inn, meanwhile, has become Rave’s stronger performer. The company has been increasing the number of its buffet-style restaurants in recent years and its sales have been recovering. System sales at the chain rose by nearly 26% last year, though it too has seen long-term declines, with unit count down 28% over the past five years.

Still, it has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance recently as consumers returned to buffets. Same-store sales at Pizza Inn rose 9% last quarter, while at Pie Five they declined 0.6%. For the full fiscal year, same-store sales rose 11.3%, compared with 5.4% for Pie Five.

Pizza Inn opened a new prototype in North Carolina in May and the company added 5 new buffet locations last year. The chain plans to reimage 95% of its buffet locations over the next three years. “While the restaurant industry appears to have abandoned dine-in, we continue to lean into our differentiated strategy, focusing on the value and variety of Pizza Inn’s buffet while capturing delivery and carryout,” Solano said.

Pie Five, meanwhile, refocused on individual pizzas, ending its effort at selling large pizzas. But it now plans to start testing the sale of Pizza Inn products as a virtual brand starting next year.

Still, the two brands are fundamentally different. Pie Five is a fast-casual concept without a traditional pizza oven that specializes in individual pizzas. Pizza Inn serves traditional pizzas, wings and other items.

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