LeBron James has been on a few basketball dream teams, but he’s now on a dream team of sorts in the investment world that also includes such folks as newswoman/former California First Lady Maria Shriver, Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and Panda Express founder Andrew Cherng. This group is involved with a hot investment—Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza—that’s even hotter than the 800-degree ovens the quickly growing fast-casual chain uses.
Founded in 2011 when husband-and-wife cofounders of Wetzel’s Pretzels, Dan and Elise Wetzel, couldn’t find a pizza place for lunch and ended up at Chipotle instead, the company added 40 new locations last year. It plans to open another 60 spots this year in its goal to become the Starbucks of fast casual. With sales of $33 million (up 450 percent from 2013), the chain expects have more than 500 locations by 2020, and an IPO could happen in the next two or three years.
“There’s an opportunity for somebody to really be big,” Dan Wetzel told Bloomberg. “Who’s going to be the Starbucks of fast casual? There’s going to be a shift soon for people to start thinking above Chipotle.”
Perhaps because the idea for Blaze came to him at a Chipotle, Wetzel is a little focused on topping that fast-casual behemoth. It took Chipotle a decade to reach 227 locations, Wetzel points out, and he thinks the US could handle 2,000 Blaze restaurants, although Starbucks has about 12,000 locations in America.
While the brand may want to grow beyond the size of Chipotle, it wasn’t afraid to have its “modern architecture” influenced by the Mexican-food chain. According to Business Insider, Blaze locations have a lot of stainless steel and reclaimed wood. “The atmosphere helps bring out the quality of the product,” Blaze President & COO Jim Mizes said, according to the site. “If you eat a Chipotle burrito in a Taco Bell, it’s not going to taste as good.”
Wetzel also is extremely happy to have so many celebs sign on to Blaze. He picked them up partially with the help of film producer and Wetzel’s Pretzels investor John Davis (“Predator,” “Daddy Day Care” and “Grumpy Old Men”) and partially because of the success of his last venture.
“Those guys have lots of help, lots of connections,” Wetzel said of his celeb investors to QSR. “They also have helped put a spotlight on the brand, so I kind of can use them like endorsement deals without having endorsements.”
Pizza is already a popular consumer choice, but Blaze thinks there is a lot more room for brand loyalty to a national chain. Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Domino’s only make up 40 percent of national pizza sales, so there is plenty of room to push out more local fare.
Blaze works similarly to Chipotle in its customization of the product. Visitors get to pick “from seven cheeses, eight proteins, 20 vegetables and three sauces” as the pie travels down an assembly line of sorts before being placed into the open-fire ovens that finish the pie off and give the chain its name.
As Bloomberg notes, however, Blaze is not alone. Chipotle has also gotten into the pizza business with its Pizzeria Locale, which has two stores in Denver and one planned to open this summer in Kansa City, Missouri.
“Lots of restaurants claim to be the Chipotle of X, but Pizzeria Locale really is,” Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, told Bloomberg. “It shares our food culture and our people culture, which are really the things that make Chipotle work the way it does.”
Some of the new Blaze locales will be in Las Vegas and Sacramento. To help things along at its Sacramento launch, the brand is offering free pizzas this Friday to all those who follow it on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Do you know the way to San Jose? These guys do and they all made it out to our Free Pizza Party. pic.twitter.com/D8j0zdEyMY
— Blaze Pizza (@BlazePizza) April 4, 2015
Meanwhile, James, who is heading into his first playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers in a few seasons, is always happy to help boost the Blaze name. “I partner with companies that are innovating and challenging the status quo,” he said.
“Most importantly, it has to be something I like and would spend my own money to buy,” added James. “Blaze checked every box and I’m excited about what they are doing.”