Before you write off Blaze Pizza as yet another niche food startup catering to Millennials (the store's design includes hip reclaimed wood and an orange oven,) consider that it grabbed the interest of NBA pro-baller LeBron James, who serves as an investor and franchisee in the company. The former First Lady of California, Maria Shriver, also has a stake in the business.
It's easy to see why Blaze has attracted celebrity interest--the still-young startup is growing like crazy. In fact, the company claims it will be ready to go public in two years. And now it's rolling out a delivery program, with the help of on-demand courier service Postmates, to 12 locations nationwide. Although the delivery service has been available since around the end of last year, Blaze has kept it quiet.
Three years ago, Blaze co-founders Elise and Rick Wetzel (also of the eponymous Wetzel's Pretzels chain) wanted to fill a perceived gap in the fast-casual food marketplace. The two had gone out for lunch one day with a craving for pizza, but ended up at Chipotle instead. That's where they got the idea for a company that bakes custom pizzas on an assembly line for a comparatively affordable price. Blaze pizzas go for around $7 to $8 dollars, and can include virtually any combination of desired toppings (it also has vegetarian and vegan options).
To be sure, entering the pizza industry is not exactly a novel business move: The competition is stiff because the client base is virtually limitless, given that 13 percent of Americans report eating pizza on any given day, according to research from the Department of Agriculture. Pizza restaurants alone brought in $39 billion in annual revenue in 2014, according to market research firm IBIS World, with the major players being Domino's Pizza, Little Caesar's, Papa John's, and Pizza Hut. What sets Blaze apart from some of those competitors, says Wetzel, is the combination of speed and quality.
Blaze has seen success since it started back in 2012 in Pasadena, California, at least in financial terms: The company has expanded to 64 locations nationwide (it will have 112 by the end of 2015) and it brought in $33 million in revenue in 2014--a 450 percent uptick from 2013, when it brought in $6 million in sales. Adding 40 stores in one year helped jumpstart that figure.
If LeBron's inaugural visit is any indication, the company doesn't compromise on taste: The pro went back for a second pizza at the Pasadena location, after which he proceeded to sign autographs for 300 oggling basketball fans, Wetzel recalls.
Executive chef Bradford Kent says the company tries to source its ingredients as locally as possible, although he notes that it has gotten trickier to do as the business expands. Blaze uses its own flour blend, for example, which is made with ingredients grown in the U.S. (primarily in California) and milled at various different facilities nationwide. Its cheeses also come from different states across the country, and particular toppings, such as sausages, may come from independent facilities, like the Creole Country Sausage Factory in New Orleans. All vendors go through at least three rounds of testing, says Kent, before they're brought on as official partners.
You're probably wondering how Blaze gets away with serving up a high-caliber pizza in as little as 180 seconds. According to Kent, the secret is actually not in the sauce, it's in the oven itself. "When you cook with super high heat, you get better quality. The thing that causes pizza to rise...and to get those charred bubbles of goodness, is high heat." Kent, who has degrees under his belt in culinary, business, and food science--and whose previous chef experience includes stints at restaurants such as New York City's Aureole--also added that cooking pizzas at high temperatures makes them easier to digest. Unlike some of the more traditional restaurant ovens, which cook at around 200,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units), Blaze ovens use around 360,000 BTU of gas power.
Although Wetzel refused to disclose Blaze's total funding, he says LeBron has given a sizeable "chunk."