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Why Blaze is the Pizza Chain of the Future

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It’s a well-known fact of life that everyone loves pizza. But here in Chicago, we love pizza. We have deep-felt opinions on crust, and we even have tours dedicated to and designed around one of the city’s most defining foods. With staples like Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s, and Giordano’s, as well as local gems like Homeslice and Pequod’s, Chicago knows its pies.

Sometimes, however, we may not want to wait a long time for gourmet pizza, so we resort to one of our go-to pizza chains like Domino’s (DPZ - Free Report) or Pizza Hut (YUM - Free Report) , foregoing style and substance for convenience. A burgeoning fast-casual pizza chain is looking to change that.

Founded in 2012 by Elise and Rick Wetzel, Blaze Pizza is one of the fastest-growing restaurants in the industry. Like a Chipotle (CMG - Free Report) pizza dream, it prepares and bakes personal pizzas fresh-to-order in an assembly line fashion. Customers can either choose an artisanal pizza from the Blaze menu or create their own, choosing toppings from a wide selection in front of them. There’s seven cheeses, eight proteins, 17 veggies, and 10 sauces.

Fresh, Healthy Ingredients

Image via: Business Insider, Blaze Pizza

Recently, Blaze launched an initiative to rid its food selection of any artificial ingredients. Aptly named “Keepin’ It Real,” the company is committed to serving additive-free food in 2017. Blaze is working with its suppliers to remove artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup.

Specifically, it’s also “nixing the nitrates” in its cured meats like sausage and pepperoni, removing preservatives in its garlic and salad dressings, switching to “true hue” black olives and banana peppers without artificial colors, and moving to barbeque sauce with no high fructose corn syrup.

“To deliver against our commitment, several of our sources upgraded their recipes just for us. In some cases, we had to seek out new partners,” said Blaze Pizza’s Executive Chef Bradford Kent in a news release. “It took months of review before we finally found a banana pepper that met our standards for both color and taste, without artificial colors or preservatives, but it was worth the time invested. You really can taste the difference.”

Even its pizza dough is considered “clean.” Made from scratch on a daily basis, Blaze’s dough uses just a few simple ingredients: unbleached flour, extra-virgin olive oil, filtered water, salt, and a dash of sugar. The company’s restaurants also use sustainable packaging, including cups, lids, and straws made from plant-based materials.

Unbelievable Growth

On pace to become the country’s biggest pizza chain by 2020, Blaze Pizza has exploded since its debut only five years ago. Last year, the company opened 68 new restaurants, reaching 173 total locations in the U.S. According to Business Insider, Blaze reported year-over-year sales growth of 84% in 2016 to $186 million from $101 million in 2015.

A huge contributing factor to Blaze’s fast growth is one of its high-profile investors: LeBron James.

James was an original investor in the company back in 2012, holding franchise rights in Miami and Chicago. Since leaving behind a lucrative endorsement deal with iconic burger chain McDonald’s (MCD - Free Report) , the NBA star has played a huge role in Blaze’s marketing strategy. Blaze hopes that with Lebron James, the pizza chain will soon become the biggest name in the fast-casual business.

Blaze also hopes to get into pizza delivery, which would put the pressure on traditional pizza chains Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s (PZZA - Free Report) , and Little Caesar’s, and allow Blaze to truly compete head-to-head. The company is looking to make an international push as well, though that looks to be more of a long-term goal.

The Future of Pizza?

When a company’s management team unanimously has its sights set on a $1 billion valuation and beyond, you know it’s going places. But beyond Blaze’s impressive growth track and marketing strategy lies the real reason for its success: meshing everyone’s love of pizza, fast-casual food, and authenticity.

What Blaze offers its customers that other pizza chains don’t is that made-to-order, do-it-yourself factor. As you approach the register and put in your order, your personal pizza starts to come alive right before your eyes. You see the dough put in a flattening machine, the sauce ladled on, the toppings artfully placed, the pizza slid inside a huge orange oven. Just 3 minutes later, your custom, artisanal pizza is ready to be devoured, and no matter how many toppings you add, the pies only cost $7.95 and up, depending on location.

Like many restaurants who have found success recently—think Dave & Buster’s (PLAY - Free Report) and Starbucks (SBUX - Free Report) —Blaze is focused on creating an authentic experience for its customers. What you see is literally what you get, and it’s a motto that will help drive the fast-casual pizza chain forward.

Is Blaze the future of the $40 billion pizza industry? Perhaps, and especially so in bustling metropolitan areas and on college campuses. If the company can expand into pizza delivery, it will become a real force to be reckoned with. But until that happens, I’ll thank my lucky stars I live in Chicago.

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