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Fast-casual pizza primes for delivery

Operators adapt to compete in the off-premise market.

When fast-fired, build-your-own pizza concepts began mushrooming in the fast-casual space, they were designed for a dine-in experience. Truth be told, the ultra-thin crusts piled with toppings are best eaten immediately, so the pizzas retain their crispness. Until recently, the DIY segment has primarily embraced that unique selling point, allowing Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and other pizza mega-players to dominate delivery as they always have. But the delivery boom—and consumer demand for it—shows no signs of slowing. So fast-casual pizza chains are jumping on the delivery wagon, evolving their models, changing recipes, packaging, staffing, ordering technology and store design. These three all took the plunge within the last few months and are still testing systems to see what works best.

Behind-the-scenes make line

In half of its 45 locations, PizzaRev’s ovens are designed with double access from the front and back of house. While dine-in guests are customizing their pizzas and watching them bake in front, kitchen staff are prepping orders that come in online and popping pizzas into the ovens from the other side. “Going forward, all new stores will be equipped this way,” says Ed Yancey, PizzaRev’s director of franchising.

In the locations without this design, “we’ve created a second make line for delivery orders and are exploring the use of a second BOH oven or modifying the current ovens to create access in the back.” Also in test is an insulated bag with an integrated heating element that holds the temperature of the pizza during transit, says Yancey.

As of early 2018, PizzaRev’s delivery purchases made up 5% to 8% of sales, using third-party companies, but the chain has been testing direct delivery in two stores with the idea to roll it out systemwide by the second quarter of 2018. Even with the cost of adding cars, drivers and insurance, Yancey predicts that this in-house move will boost profit margins. “We charge $10 for a pizza, the delivery party gets 20% and they charge the consumer $4. The model is expensive for the customer and not a moneymaker for the restaurant,” he says.

The chain can also train in-house drivers on pickup procedures. Using its own staff, drivers know to pick up pizzas in back, so they don’t disrupt the customer experience. When PizzaRev uses third-party drivers, the front-of-house line directs drivers to a specific pickup area, which are separate in about half of its restaurants.

Menued for dinner

PizzaRev has not changed its pizza recipe or format—groups simply order multiple individual pies, Yancey says. To help pad the check, as well as push orders toward dinner, the chain introduced shareables, such as wings and breadsticks, to the menu. “Right now, delivery business is 50-50 lunch and dinner, but I anticipate delivery to move it toward 35% lunch, 65% dinner,” says Yancey.

Pie Five also offers build-your-own personal pies off-premise, but the chain found that many of its customers wanted a larger option, says Christina Coy, VP of marketing. In late 2017, Pie Five introduced a 14-inch pie designed to share, along with sandwiches and other new products targeted to delivery, she says. Although she won’t reveal figures, “the 14-inch pizzas spurred positive growth in delivery, with a bump in dinner and weekend business,” Coy says.

To launch its new pizza and promote off-premise—which it does via a mix of third-party and in-house deliverers—the chain started with a free delivery offer, then marketed bundled deals of multiple pizzas and dessert to its loyalty club members and social media fans, says Coy, focusing on the value angle of unlimited toppings.

Pie Five’s sister company, Pizza Inn, is a delivery veteran, so the younger sibling tapped its expertise for packaging solutions and other processes. To keep pizzas hot from oven to dropoff spot—a period of 15-20 minutes—Pie Five places a liner called a crisper on the bottom of the box and packs the box in an insulated bag.

Partnering with technology

Blaze Pizza, a concept with 237 units, is going the third-party delivery route. One of the biggest challenges, say operators, is the lack of integration of third-party deliverers into restaurants’ POS systems. But in the last quarter of 2017, Blaze partnered with an online ordering platform “to supercharge mobile and online orders,” says CMO Shivram Vaideeswaran. “We’re trying out the platform’s dispatch feature, which integrates delivery into the order and speeds the process.”

Currently, Blaze is testing the technology in about 20 locations, focusing exclusively on third-party delivery players. “We hope to go nationwide later in 2018, but the challenge is coverage. We can’t find one delivery partner to provide 100% coverage,” says Vaideeswaran, a problem also noted by Coy for covering Pie Five’s full radius.

Operational shifts

Blaze has instituted several best practices to fine-tune delivery—changing how it does things rather than altering its pizza recipe, says Executive Chef Brad Kent. “Design elements in the box help preserve the integrity of the pizza during delivery. It’s a shallower box with less headspace for better heat retention,” he says. The pickup shelf is also designed for a quality result—its slatting and venting configuration keep the pizza crisp. Through trial and error, “we discovered that our crust doesn’t maintain its crispy texture and chew when held under heat lamps,” says Kent. “We also looked at other packaging materials and box inserts, but these adjustments worked best.” Reheating instructions are also printed in each box. [As far as staffing goes, the same number of employees are handling orders, with more shuffling between front and back of house depending on business, says Vaideeswaran.]

Although Blaze’s delivery initiative is in its beginning stages, Vaideeswaran reports that checks are a little higher, as customers add on salads and drinks. The chain also has adjusted its ordering practices. “We built out a large selection of to-go beverages in cans and bottles for drivers to easily grab with an order,” he says. “For the most part, the third-party companies will not deliver fountain drinks.”

All the operators agree that fast-casual pizza delivery is a work in progress, as they work with third-party players, tech partners and their own team members to create guidelines and streamline processes. But all also agree that 2018 will see a big push to make it happen. “Delivery is what we’re asked about the most on social media,” says Vaideeswaran.

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