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By: Elizabeth Friend

The US restaurant world has been rumbling about better pizza for a few years now, but the trend is nearing a tipping point. With better burgers speeding toward its apex, forward-looking fast casual consumers are looking toward the next big culinary trend, and better pizza seems poised to take up the mantle. These chains aren’t just fast casual pizza chains, they’re artisanal, usually wood-fired and Neopolitan-style pizza concepts that emphasise a fresher, healthier positioning and a whole new kind of pizza dining occasion. They’re customisable and flexible, with strong branding and a focus on ingredients, and they’re spreading quickly across the US with high potential for international expansion over the long-term.

Quick, customisable, and premium

This trend is exemplified by 800 Degrees, a Los Angeles-based wood-fired, Neopolitan-style pizza chain from the creator of better burger chain Umami Burger. The chain offers assembly-line style ordering and premium ingredients like prosciutto di parma, anchovies, artichokes, arugula, and ten different cheeses, all cooked to order in under a minute and then served table-side by waitstaff. While the bulk of the menu is pizza, the chain also offers small plates like antipasto or burrata with beets and balsamic, as well as a selection of salads and gelati. This variety, along with a sleek, modern dining room that would feel right at home in the full-service category, allows the chain to serve both quick lunch traffic and more event-driven dinner occasions, a factor that helps illustrate why these chains are so innovative.

Rather than just offering better pizza, they are also helping to broaden the conventional pizza-eating occasion, which in the US has historically revolved around easy, filling dinners for groups at home. Instead, 800 Degrees eschews delivery and fosters an atmosphere that encourages both dine-in and takeaway, catering just as easily to single diners as it does to groups, and to lunch traffic as it does to the dinner daypart. With this strategy these chains appeal simultaneously to all of the current pizza formats, including pizza full-service, pizza 100% home delivery/takeaway, and even pizza fast food, with personal pan cooked-to-order pizzas rather than the standard by-the-slice offer, which has suffered in recent years due to limitations on its customizability and freshness.

800 Degrees is one of many, however, and each US region seems to now have its own set of fast-casual pizza upstarts. &pizza, which has nine outlets in the Mid-Atlantic states, adds dessert pizzas and housemade sodas to the formula, including concoctions like citrus tangerine fizz and burdock and anise rootbeer. Other similar concepts include Pizzeria Locale, the Denver-based fast casual pizza concept that famously grew out of a secret partnership with Chipotle, and PizzaRev, which is partially backed by fellow fast-casual giant Buffalo Wild Wings. PizzaRev now has at least 18 outlets in four US states, with many more to come.

While the majority of these chains appear to be concentrated within the US along with the rest of the fast-casual dining market, the move toward international expansion has already begun. London has seen a surge in modern takes on Neopolitan pizza concepts, including the 10-unit chain Franco Manca, which specialises in sourdough crust. Many chains have also begun opening outlets in the Gulf States, including the health-focused Naked Pizza, which has five outlets in the UAE.

It’s worth noting, however, that Naked Pizza has already been through its own mini boom-and-bust cycle in the US. The chain was a very early entrant to the better pizza market in the mid-aughts, and by 2009 it was expanding quickly throughout the US via franchise agreements. However, just a few years later many outlets had started to close, and the chain has now consolidated to just nine US outlets and six in the Middle East and Africa. This speaks to an important aspect of the better pizza trend, which is that its recent surge has been just as much about timing as it has been about innovation. The rapid rise of the fast-casual dining segment, and even more so its recent evolution into a much broader, much more complex segment that includes a wide variety of cuisine types, service models, and price points, has helped to prime the US public for growth in fast-casual pizza. Now that this demand is colliding with a rapidly increasing supply from a variety of competing chains, it is creating what could very well be the next big concept trend.

So why now?

Five years ago the sophisticated urban restaurant consumer may not have been quite ready for better pizza, and residents in many cities may have thought the last thing they needed was yet another pizza joint; however, consumers in the US have spent the last three years being steadily indoctrinated with the idea that fast-casual is an incredibly flexible format that can be applied to any kind of dining occasion and, by extension, any kind of concept. As excitement around fast-casuals has grown, so has consumers’ willingness to try new and more diverse types of fast-casual dining, with the central thread being that all of these concepts give them greater control of their dining experience, offering something that feels modern, fresh, and in line with their personal preferences and self-image.

Until recently, fast-casual pizza has also been hindered by the issues of speed and price point, due to the fact that early fast-casual iterations were beholden to a convenience-focused positioning and a price ceiling of around US$10. In this phase, fast-casual dining’s unique selling point was still very much about pairing fast food’s benefits with a better quality dining experience, especially during lunch. In direct opposition to this, pizza’s shareable nature and inherently larger quantity favours the dinner daypart, as well as higher price-points. Now that the fast-casual movement has evolved to a point where consumers are more readily willing to accept a variety of price-tiers, as well as occasions, fast casual pizza is a much better fit.

Finally, the health and wellness movement has just now matured to the point where pizza can be made to appeal to the core fast-casual consumer, albeit with very careful positioning. Five years ago the low-carb trend was at its peak, and restaurants were pulling bread baskets from tables and churning out low-carb versions of everything from pizza to bagels. Now that it has completed its run and settled back into the country’s general dietary repertoire, health-minded consumers have begun prioritizing a more holistic, “real foods” approach to wellness, and bread has returned to the table in the form of more premium, artisanal bread that is worthy of the indulgence. Many fine dining outlets have even begun charging for house-made bread in recent years, illustrating the item’s new status as a specialty offer rather than a standard commodity. Within this new bread landscape, healthier fast-casual pizza is not only permissible but exciting—it’s a positioning that pairs indulgence with wellness, a combination that is nearly irresistible for modern US consumers.

What’s next?

Fast-casual pizza is still very much in its early stages of development, and just as with better burgers in its early years, there will likely be a lengthy period in which all of these chains are able to grow simultaneously as demand for such concepts grows alongside them. Better burgers have grown from niche trend to global culinary revolution in under a decade, and they have also given rise to some of the fastest growing global fast-casual chains, including Five Guys. With this in mind, the next few years will be incredibly important for any chain looking to make a name for itself in the better pizza space. Very soon the trend’s leading chains will begin to emerge, and those that can generate the most momentum should be able to ride the wave to much larger growth opportunities as the trend matures.

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