With 4 crusts, 7 sauces, and roughly 25 toppings available, Texas-based Pie Five Pizza Company is ready to make virtually any kind of pizza you might want. And, with all its pies taking a mere two and a half minutes to bake, Pie Five is also delivering its goods at an enviable rate of speed. Welcome to the fast-casual dining sector, pizza-style: an interactive experience for customers that’s already developing a loyal following—at least among customers who understand the concept, Pie Five senior vice president Chris Smith says.
“If someone happens on a Pie Five right now,” he explains, “they might say, ‘OK, it’s a pizza place, but is it delivery? Is it carry-out? Is it a buffet? Is it take ’n’ bake?’ People really don’t know what fast-casual pizza is yet, and our biggest goal today is to educate them. Once they discover what it is, it’s a huge hit.”
Like Panera, Fazoli’s, and Chipotle, Pie Five is part of the burgeoning sector of the restaurant industry that toes the line between fast food and casual dining (hence the hybrid term “fast-casual”). Unlike most of its fast-casual competitors, though, Pie Five focuses on one basic item. Salads and desserts are on the menu, but otherwise, it’s all about the custom-made pizzas and the five minutes, start to finish, that it takes to order, bake, and serve each one. It’s this simplicity, Smith says, that keeps the chain’s build-out costs 20–30 percent below its peers’.
“Our model will generate a higher evened-out cash flow on the same sales because of the advantage we have with lower food costs and lower labor costs,” Smith explains. “It’s such an easy concept, and coupled with our build-out costs, it’s significantly less than some of the other players.”
Smith should know, too—he spent eight years as the director of operations for Chipotle and was doing similar work for Denver-based Smashburger when he made the move to Pie Five in January 2013. By handling all franchisee-operations training and overseeing all the chain’s real estate and construction efforts, he builds “the culture of the brand” with each new store location. As of press time, the company had 20 locations, and it expected to have 40 by the end of 2014, with 12 different franchise groups contracted to do 170 more over the next five years.
“We’re going to be franchised and corporate,” Smith says. “We’re not going to be a group that has one or two corporate restaurants and then 99 percent will be franchised. We like running restaurants. We’ve been in the pizza business for 55 years with our parent company [Pizza Inn Holdings], and we want to grow with our franchise group.”
The company has grown in more ways than one since Smith came aboard. Most importantly, though, he and CEO Randy Gierr have made a number of changes from both an operational and building perspective, replacing the “really funky materials” at new locations (and at several of the Dallas-area originals) with a “warmer, more natural” look; for example, crews swapped out chrome for brushed aluminum, and they removed sections of plastic in order to add tile and stone. Though the interior décor book created for Pie Five limits the flexibility franchisees have for new builds, they are provided a palette of options for, say, the occasional 12-foot white wall.
And, though the chain’s first freestanding store will open this year in Wichita, Kansas, its core model remains rather modest. “[It’s] a 2,200-square-foot end-cap with great visibility and great parking,” Smith says. “We don’t like to go more than 2,500; we’ve proven now that we don’t need them that big.”
Designed into every location are the specific conveyor convection ovens that bake Pie Five’s efficient, consistent product. Placement of the ovens, however, has been the subject of some experimentation, and early on the appliances presented some unique challenges when they were stacked atop one another. “Engineers told us there should be no problems, but the first unit we got into—which happened to be the first franchise location, in Salt Lake—the ovens shut down the first night.” Smith says. “We were able to get it back up, but we learned we had to get more venting [than we already had].”
Today, Smith’s 17 years of brand-building experience keep such surprises to a minimum, and he’s taking the best of what he has learned from other fast-casuals and applying it at Pie Five. “Whether you’re talking pizza or hamburgers or burritos,” he says, “it’s picking a great location, having great marketing in place to drive awareness, and having the systems and processes in place for success, whether you’re a franchise or corporate location.”