Walk into any Pieology, and in place of wallpaper or posters, you’ll be greeted by a giant “quote board” filled with inspiring sayings. Many of the more than 500 phrases encouraging happiness, smiling and respect for others were chosen by the wife of Pieology’s CEO Carl Chang to exemplify what guests will experience at the “better pizza” chain.

Chang—brother and former coach of professional tennis star Michael Chang, who also is a significant investor—co-founded Pieology in 2011, relatively early in the “Chipotle of pizza”era. With 55 company-owned and franchised units in operation, it’s on track for 110 by the end of this year. And commitments are in place for a total of 500  units over the next five to six years.

Pizza may be the most-enjoyed food in the world, says Chang, but a great product at an affordable price was just the baseline. “We wanted to create a truly personalized pizza experience that is fun and inspiring,” he says.

A model pizza chain

There’s no denying that the fast-casual pizza segment is filling up fast. Like much of its competition, Pieology peddles individual-size custom pizzas on housemade New York-style crust, baked in an open-flame stone-deck oven that cooks the pie in less than three minutes. For $7.95, customers pick a style of fresh dough (white, whole wheat or gluten-free) and a sauce, then proceed down a line choosing from some 30 toppings, ranging from prosaic pepperoni to Gorgonzola and cilantro. Guests—dubbed “pieologists”—also can “shake it up with a flavor blast” by adding an after-bake finish of barbecue, pesto or Buffalo sauce.

There also are seven menued pies inspired by customers’ favorite creations,  including Alfredo’s Alfredo and Smokin’ Buffalo Chicken with Buffalo sauce, spicy chicken and Gorgonzola. Currently, beverages at the fast casual are limited to fountain drinks and bottled water, but the company plans to add beer and wine in the near future. Checks currently average $10.50, or $14.75 when paired with a salad.

The fact that serial pizza entrepreneur James Markham had a hand in developing the system for Pieology as well as several of its competitors, including Mod Pizza (No. 5 in this year’s Future 50 ranking), has lent a certain sameness to the business models. (Chang parted ways soon after launch with Markham, who went on to develop similar concept Project Pie.) Chang is well aware that individual custom-built pies and high-tech ovens are easy to knock off. But Pieology’s commitment to its core values, says Chang, will help differentiate the brand moving forward. “After all, it’s the local community that decides who makes its favorite pizza,” he says.

“Here, our customers can create whatever they want, without any barriers like cost or rules,” he explains. “Our competitors are all about ‘How can we monetize this?’ I wanted to challenge that kind of thinking.”

The Life of Pie‘

What’s also not so easy to reproduce is Pieology’s congenial culture. The quote board does more than establish the environment. Chang says it represents the “magic ingredient” that motivates staffers, who are trained to interact with guests in an enthusiastic and casual way: “Have you tried the pesto sauce yet?” or “Wow, that’s a cool looking pizza!”

Staff also encourage guests to snap photos and name their creations for Twitter and Instagram. At a time when social media has become instrumental, Pieology leverages the foodie photos to spread the word about its brand.

Franchise forward

Pieology is attracting the kind of heavy-hitting area development groups that Chang is looking for. Originally, he was going for corporate growth exclusively, but burgeoning competition in the segment convinced him that scale was needed—and soon. He wants operators with experience, financial resources and what he calls a “tremendous moral compass” to steward the brand into the future.

There are 22 franchisees signed up, and Chang feels he can blanket the country with 45 like-minded heavy hitters. To them, his door always will be open.

Corporate growth still is important, however, and Chang plans to maintain 30 percent of the system in company hands. “Franchisees can’t take all of the risk; if we don’t have skin in the game with our own units, then we don’t know what the franchisee is experiencing,” Chang says.  “That creates misalignment.”

“We have to be one of the best operators in the system,” he continues. “And we have to keep moving forward in order to stay relevant and engaged.” 

LocationRancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
2014 Systemwide Sales ($000)$44,600,000*
YOY Sales Change230.4%
2014 U.S. Units42
YOY Unit Change180.0%
2014 Average Unit Volume ($000)$1,600,000*
Future 50 Year2015

*Technomic estimate

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