Sharing Success

Fast Personal Pizza, Trend or Fad?

If you read restaurant industry magazines, then you probably know about some of the new “fast personal” pizzerias opening around the country. (Mostly dominated by chain type owners, a few Independents have also opened their own versions.)

Designed to hopefully reproduce the consumer popularity of the Chipotle burrito chain, these counter service pizzerias let guests see and select which fresh toppings employees add to their personal sized pizza as it moves down the assembly line toward the oven. Then, the thin, small diameter pies are typically baked in an artisan style oven within a few minutes.

Because I am always interested in anything that could possibly impact “our kind” of Independent restaurateur customers, I have personally visited more than a dozen of these emerging regional chains to better understand them. To understand whether “fast personal” pizza is a fad or a trend, let us first look at what has made Chipotle so popular.

1) Food that tastes good. Chipotle’s burritos taste good because they are made from simple Mexican staples like freshly cooked beans, rice, and carnitas. On the other hand, fast food “Mexican” offered by chains like Taco Bell features “invented” foods (“grilled stuffed nachos”) and often highly seasoned, highly processed ingredients (“zesty nacho cheese sauce”).

2) Personalized to individual tastes. Chipotle customers like to pick and choose their own favorite burrito fillings, rather than having to choose from predetermined “one size fits all” options.

3) Fresher tasting, higher quality ingredients. Being able to watch their food being hand prepared, directly from simple, fresh tasting ingredients, helps reinforce Chipotle customers’ perceptions that its food quality is superior to typical “fast food.”

4) Fast. Priced at a premium, Chipotle mainly competes directly against cheaper fast food outlets. By offering equally fast service, but dramatically better tasting food, Chipotle has made itself an attractive alternative to consumers looking for more flavorful, wholesome alternatives.

5) Efficient and consistent store level execution. Because Chipotle wisely limits its menu to one thing (burritos) made from a dozen ready to eat components, its employees can rapidly custom build them by the time guests reach the cashier. More importantly, by keeping each ready to eat component consistent across locations, burritos made with the same ingredients will taste the same in different cities.

By sticking to these success factors over time, Chipotle has kept attracting and keeping more loyal patrons who don’t mind paying a bit more for consistently better tasting food.

So who have been the “losers” while Chipotle has grown? Not Independent quality oriented, sit down Mexican restaurants. They continue to succeed by providing high quality food and personalized service at reasonable prices.

On the other hand, “fast food” Mexican (e.g., Taco Bell) and traditional “fast food” burgers (McDonald’s) have been impacted. Why? Because for years, they have competed on the basis of cheapest menu prices, not highest food quality, which made them vulnerable to higher quality options.

If the Chipotle “model” works with pizza, I suspect that the ultimate winners will need to conquer the same success factors:

1) Must taste good. There is never a shortage of cheaper, lesser quality pizzeria competitors. The key to attracting loyal repeat customers is still serving consistently great food.

2) Must allow personalization without sacrificing food quality or service. Personalization is an important part of Chipotle’s success. But it only works when the food being personalized is worth eating.

3) Must feature fresher tasting, high quality ingredients. (As my Nonno Amerigo was fond of saying, “You can’t make good wine from bad grapes.”)

4) Must be fast. Targeting the same fast food customers as Chipotle requires similarly speedy service.

5) Efficient, consistent execution. Consistent execution may be more challenging in pizza than burritos, because varying quantities and types of toppings can make it harder to achieve a consistent bake in hand tended artisan style ovens.

If winners emerge by conquering the success factors above, who will “lose” in the pizza business? Just like with Chipotle, the most vulnerable restaurants will be those that are the least focused on consistently exceptional food.

That is why I believe that pizzerias and Italian restaurants who are committed to serving consistently excellent food and service will continue to be successful and need not be overly concerned about the impact of this new “model” on their business.