Few types of restaurants have gone from hot to stale as quickly as fast-casual pizza.
In the last five years, chains such as MOD Pizza, Blaze Pizza, and PizzaRev opened up hundreds of locations and raised millions of dollars from investors. It seemed like everyone wanted to get rich quick by opening their own take on the “Chipotle of pizza.”
Now, no one wants to be Chipotle.
Sales at fast-casual pizza chains such as Rave Pizza and Pie Five are plummeting. In April, Buffalo Wild Wings closed both locations of its fast-casual pizza chain, PizzaRev. Even executives are acknowledging that the buzz is dying down.
“I think it’s going to go from over-hyped to just settling in,” Scott Svenson, the CEO of MOD Pizza, told Business Insider. “I think there will be two to three brands building national businesses … just like burgers, or burritos, or anything else. But I think that crazy, over-hyped phase is in the rearview mirror.”
Svenson and his wife, Ally, founded MOD Pizza in Seattle in 2008. Today, the fast-casual chain has 227 locations across the US and the UK. MOD helped kick off the trend of pizza chains that prepared their pies made to order, with customers picking fresh ingredients at the counter, Chipotle-style.
“It was only in 2011, 2012 that other stores came in,” Svenson said. “Then, there were a number of years where there was an explosion.”
“I think there’s more rationality now,” Svenson continued. “It’s easy to open one store and send out a press release that you’re going to be the ‘Chipotle of pizza.’ It’s much harder to open the second, and the fifth, and the tenth, and then start to scale.”
So, what does it mean to be one of the dominant players in an industry that is no longer on fire?
According to Svenson, it’s a good place to be.
In July, MOD hired its first COO, Paul Twohig, a former executive at Starbucks, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and Panera Bread. MOD plans to open more than 50 more restaurants before the end of 2017.
More importantly in Svenson’s mind, the company can take pride in the culture it has built. According to Svenson, on average, employees make 25% above the local, federal, and state minimum wage. The chain has worked to recruit workers from all walks of life, regardless of their criminal history, experience, or disability.
“There aren’t a lot of barriers to entry for pizza,” Svenson said.
So, if a chain wants to thrive, it needs to set itself apart from the competition — especially now that fast-casual pizza chains aren’t the investor bait they once were.
Svenson says that MOD’s expansion has already far exceeded his original expectations, and that the chain’s current growth plan is something akin to Chipotle’s 2,250 locations. But, he’s not putting any limits on how big MOD could get.
“We’re just getting into our rhythm,” Svenson said.
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