Operations

Blaze Pizza fans the flames of fast-casual pizza with brand overhaul

As the niche tries to find its post-pandemic path, Blaze hopes to regain leadership with a new menu and mission.
Blaze Pizza
New menu items coming soon to Blaze Pizza. |Photo courtesy of Blaze Pizza.

Blaze Pizza wants to get “fast fire’d” up again.

The 330-unit fast-casual pizza chain has launched a brand overhaul that will include a new menu, a new heartfelt mission and a plan to retake leadership of a niche that appears to be shrinking.

At an event at a unit in Disney Springs, Florida, last week, CEO Beto Guajardo and CMO Christian Kuhn unveiled plans for a year’s worth of “things to talk about” to excite both guests and franchisees about the brand again.

It comes at a time when fast-casual pizza appears to be struggling.

During the first quarter, the 527-unit competitor MOD Pizza said it closed 26 underperforming units across the country in what was described as an evaluation of asset performance. In 2023, Pieology’s unit count was down 3.4% to 115, with sales also sinking 4.3% to $118 million, according to sister brand Technomic’s Top 500 data. Unit growth at &Pizza, which is going through its own brand overhaul, was flat at 55 units.

Blaze also saw shrinkage last year, ending 2023 with 295 U.S. units, a decline of 2.3%, despite sales growth of 1.7% last year, according to Technomic.

Blaze Pizza

A Blaze unit in the Los Angeles area. | Photo by Lisa Jennings.

But, unlike others in the space, Kuhn said, “We’re not going to close stores.”

In fact, Blaze is growing. The chain expects to add about 20 units this year. And Kuhn contends the rebrand to be rolled out over the next few months will allow Blaze to reignite the pace of growth.

“We think we are the right brand, the right model, we have the right franchisees and we have the right support,” said Kuhn. “We’re going to survive this and we’re going to come out of this, hopefully, leading the pack.”

Lost in the pizza space

Founded in 2011 by Rick and Elise Wetzel, Blaze was once the hottest player in the hottest niche within fast casual, with investors that included NBA star LeBron James and movie producer John Davis.

But fast-casual pizza has been facing somewhat of an existential crisis in the post-pandemic era. Fundamentally, the style of pizza built in front of guests in a Chipotle-like format was designed to be best fresh out of the oven—and quick enough, even, as a lunch option for busy office workers.

But then the pandemic came along.

Fast-casual pizza didn’t travel as well as delivery-designed brands. The office workers stayed home. And fast-casual consumers more broadly fell in love with chicken sandwiches.

Last year, Blaze—which is owned by private-equity firm Brentwood Associates—started to make some moves to address the shifting climate.

Guajardo, the former president of Focus Brands International (now GoTo Foods) took the helm as CEO in January 2023, and began reworking the leadership team. One of those hires was Kuhn, also a GoTo Foods alum, who stepped into the marketing role at Blaze about four months ago.

Now, Kuhn said the company is doing what it should have done a long time ago, but didn’t.

He calls the rebrand a “shot in the arm” that puts culinary innovation at the forefront.

Here’s the plan:

Blaze Pizzas

New and improved signature pizzas. | Photo courtesy of Blaze Pizza.

The new menu

Blaze Pizza had not updated its signature pizzas for more than a decade, Kuhn said. But last month the chain introduced an all-new lineup.

There’s The Carnivore, with pepperoni, ham and crumbled meatballs; and The Herbivore with mushrooms, roasted garlic, banana peppers and fresh arugula, among others. A spicy pepperoni pizza is even spicier. Meatballs are offered, both as a side dish and topping.

All the pizzas have double the ingredients, Kuhn said.

Whether that will result in a menu price increase is up to the franchisees. But, at Blaze, build-your-own pizzas are available at a set price, no matter the toppings, and Kuhn said Blaze recommends “coupling,” or offering both build-your-own and signature pizzas at the same price.

Also coming in July to the menu are new drizzle sauces: a spicy chili oil and a sweet-spicy hot honey, which follows the growing demand for “swicy” flavors.

And, because Blaze is one of the few fast-casual pizza players where dough is made in house, the new menu will take advantage of that SKU with some extensions.

There’s new cheesy bread, which can be spiced up with the new drizzles. Two new salads—a Pizza Shop Chopped Salad and Grape, Gorgonzola and Green— coming to the menu can be served on top of the pizza crust, as a sort of bread bowl.

Blaze Cinnamon Bread

The new Cinnamon Bread. |Photo courtesy of Blaze Pizza.

And, for dessert, the dough will become Cinnamon Bread, brushed with butter and cinnamon sugar, and drizzled with white icing. The bread will join the brand’s current dessert offerings, which include a brownie, cookie and s’mores.

Folds of Honor

The dough also will allow for a new menu category with a mission: Folds.

Sort of like calzones or strombolis, Blaze will roll out a new Pepperoni Fold with dough wrapped around mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, oregano and a triple portion of pepperoni. It will be served with a side of red sauce for dipping.

Blaze Fold

The new Pepperoni Fold. | Photo courtesy of Blaze Pizza.

The menu item is a hook for a new partnership with an organization called Folds of Honor, a foundation that offers scholarships to the spouses and children of fallen or disabled members of the military and first responders.

Starting Aug. 1, Blaze will offer a roundup program (on the entire menu) allowing guests to round up their total to make a donation to Folds of Honor. It’s an evergreen partnership, and Kuhn said Blaze may be the only company to offer the donations year-round.

In addition, Blaze is launching a Trail Blazing Pie-oneers Program that will recognize people around the world who are making the world better in some way. The first recipient will be Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, CEO and founder of Folds of Honor. Blaze will donate $10,000 to the program.

And a second Trail Blazing honoree is Blaze franchisee Wayne Albritton, who’s also on the chain’s board. Albritton created a program called Flames of Support for employees who might be going through a crisis and need help. The company will donate another $10,000 for that fund.

Leaving home

There are other moves in play.

Blaze is moving its headquarters later this year from Pasadena, California, to Atlanta, which is also home to GoTo Foods, as well as companies like Inspire Brands and Chicken Salad Chick.

The idea is not to get away from California, but to be centered in Atlanta, where many corporate team members have roots from Focus Brand days. It’s a more affordable place to live, Kuhn said, and there is industry talent there.

Blaze will retain its operational roots in California. Long an almost-entirely franchised brand, the company is growing its ownership of units in the Golden State. Last year, four franchised units were acquired and Blaze ended 2023 with 12 company-owned locations.

This year, that number could grow to as many as 20, likely mostly in California, said Kuhn, and those corporate stores will be the “sand box” for innovation.

Blaze, for example, is testing a larger 14-inch pizza, designed for delivery, in two units. The use of kiosks is also in test in company locations.

And Blaze is looking at some other technologies. For units in malls, the brand is testing the use of QR codes on posters throughout the shopping center that guests can use to order a Blaze pizza for pickup, for example.

To expand catering, the use of back-of-the-house conveyor ovens might be considered, Kuhn added.

Blaze also literally lost its emphasis on “fast fire’d,” a phrase that was in the name and logo originally, but got dropped somewhere along the line.

Now it’s back, to remind people that a Blaze pizza can be made in 180 seconds.

All of these initiatives will strengthen franchisee profitability so Blaze is ready to scoop up real estate if competitors fail, said Kuhn.

“If we time this right, there are opportunities to take on the right assets,” he said. “There will be opportunities to take Blaze into much larger, faster market share with the upside of not having to spend capital for a new build.”

Financially, Blaze is also in a good place, he said. The private-equity partner Brentwood Associates is “excited and refocused" on how Blaze can lead in the space.

“We’re back,” said Kuhn. “We’re re-ignited and we’re taking back what was ours.”

 

 

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