As a brand considered a pioneer in the “Build Your Own” pizza space, Blaze Pizza has always focused on quality ingredients, customization, and responsible environmental practices.
Blaze co-founder and chief culinary officer Brad Kent keeps a watchful eye on these items as the core components of the Blaze Pizza brand.
Today in our executive Q&A we discuss how a brand remains relevant and timely in a world where the restaurant industry has been forced to evolve quickly. Mr. Kent openly reveals his thoughts on everything from the current labor shortage, digital innovation, the rising cost of goods, sustainability, marketing, and building a brand in today’s challenging business environment.
Gary Occhiogrosso: Please tell me a little about your background in the restaurant industry. What led you to Blaze Pizza?
Brad Kent: I have been working in the restaurant industry for over 25 years, and my passion has always been geared toward food science. Throughout my career, I’ve dedicated significant time and energy to focus on the non-thermal preservation of foods, with an emphasis on all-natural ingredients for improved flavor and texture.
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My work inspired me to utilize my experience and research to develop my own restaurant concept. Fueled by my love for pizza, when I relocated to California, I founded the first-ever mobile wood-fired pizza business in Los Angeles in 2008. Named Farmers Market Pizza, we positioned the brand in local farmer’s markets around LA. A few years later, I created Olio GCM Wood Fired Pizzeria, a concept I still own and operate today and is consistently ranked as one of the best spots for pizza in Los Angeles.
During my early years in the pizza space, I quickly realized there was a gap in the quick-service industry for a pizza concept dedicated to fresh ingredients and customization while maintaining an efficient and consistent operation. To fill this void, we brought Blaze Pizza to life in 2011, blazing a new trail as the first to bring a DIY approach to the pizza segment. With over 340 stores open today, our signature ‘Blaze Your Way’ approach has sparked a passionate following from consumers nationwide who continue to fall in love with our artisanal pizzas and made-to-order menu.
Occhiogrosso: When designing the original menu for Blaze Pizza, how did you prioritize the future owners and operators of franchised locations?
Kent: When developing the original menu for Blaze, we kept the owners and operators of future franchised locations top of mind. As we sought out ways to make our menu offerings unique to other quick-service pizza concepts, we recognized the importance of also making sure the number of recipes didn’t overcomplicate operations.
I’ve learned that giving guests more control with their orders and providing customizable options often translates to brand loyalty, which is extremely valuable for emerging restaurant brands looking to expand their footprint across state lines and into new markets. Shifting processes time and time again for menu expansion can become costly to franchisees. To relieve our operators of this headache, instead of constantly adding or editing signature pizzas, we’ve been more inclined to introduce new ingredients that customers can add to their own personal creations.
Occhiogrosso: Customization is a staple at Blaze Pizza. How has the brand’s BYO approach helped drive its footprint expansion since inception?
Kent: Since Blaze Pizza’s inception, the build-your-own model, has always been our foundation. Prioritizing this functional element has allowed us to develop seamless processes that are attractive to prospective franchisees due to operational efficiency and the limited number of training hours needed for the staff.
Through my own experience and speaking with other owners and operators, efficiency continues to be of extreme value to them. Blaze’s BYO menu achieves this, and unlike many other quick-service pizza concepts, the streamlined menu gives our operators the opportunity to capture the loyalty and business of customers that may be looking for a more personalized experience than a one size fits all menu style.
This approach has led us to a successful 2021 on the development side, signing six multi-unit franchise agreements to develop 22 new units while also opening 14 new locations across key markets like Texas and Florida. This momentum has propelled our franchise growth efforts and positioned our brand for greater success in Q4 2021 and beyond.
Occhiogrosso: Most quick-service restaurant brands have been making a pivot to digital due to the changes the last two years have brought us; what investments in innovation have Blaze made to adapt to this new normal?
Kent: As Blaze has historically been a dine-in concept, with 80% of its sales in 2019 coming from on-premise dining, we leaned into our strong leadership team, unparalleled franchisee collaboration, and digital innovation to navigate the challenges of 2020. We didn’t hesitate to quickly pivot and adapt; within three weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic we launched a new curbside carryout process systemwide while also developing a unique QR code to deliver contactless menus. As a result of taking swift action and introducing these two components, our brand experienced a 155 percent increase in digital sales and a 16 percent increase in curbside.
More recently, we launched our newly revamped mobile app. Our digital and marketing teams took the time to learn what our customers enjoyed most from the previous app and what they wanted to see going forward, leveraging key findings from this research to implement features that directly cater to guest preferences. It’s important to note that our digital business now accounts for 40 percent of our sales, while in-store purchases make up 60 percent of sales.
Digital will be critical for our growth and success going forward, knowing that customers’ desire for convenience and accessibility continues to trend. We are constantly seeking out innovations that can not only optimize operation but develop a more intimate connection with our regular and new customers.
Occhiogrosso: Why is a streamlined menu attractive to prospective franchisees?
Kent: Franchisees appreciate when brands stick to what they are known for and do best. Instead of adding items to the menu that don’t align with the concept, I believe it’s important that we stick to our roots and the basics of what Blaze was built on. Simplification doesn’t mean stagnancy. We’re focused on our craftmanship and are in a unique position to offer customers the freedom to customize their favorite pizza creations without sacrificing taste or quality. The menu holds so much of the concept’s identity, and operators are interested in keeping it as simple as possible while delivering the one-of-a-kind customer experience Blaze is known for. Overcomplicating operations and expecting franchisees to shift their menus around every few months isn’t reasonable or cost-effective.
Occhiogrosso: Why does Blaze Pizza’s approach speak to consumers? What’s different about your guest experience?
Kent: When customers enter our restaurants and make their way to the counter, we give them a blank canvas with endless opportunities to express themselves and make the pizza their own. We designed the build-your-own process to be a fun and immersive dining experience that is engaging throughout. Guests can watch their pizza get built from behind the glass as it is put together and then fired up in the oven. It’s rewarding to see our guest experience resonate in new markets as we expand nationwide.
Occhiogrosso: How does Blaze Pizza balance staying true to its core menu and embracing product innovation?
Kent: We know that customers enjoy having a variety of options when it comes to dining. Although we streamline our menu and promote our build-your-own pizzas, we still look for exciting ways to push the boundaries and inspire our guests when they come to our restaurants. To be effective, we are strategical and timely with the menu innovations we introduce.
In June 2019, amidst the hard seltzer boom, we put together a recipe featuring the popular mango-flavored White Claw hard seltzer, with the drink replacing 100 percent of the water in the pizza dough. This crust, along with our signature red sauce, shredded mozzarella, pepperoni, roasted red pepper, fresh jalapeño, and arugula, turned into our “White Claw Pizza.” To complement the mango crust, pineapples were added to the top of the pizza. It was featured at 20 locations for one day only, but customers fell in love with it and requested it to make a return.
Occhiogrosso: How do you cater to Blaze’s audience and target customers? Any plans to change your approach in the future?
Kent: Our customer base tends to lean toward the younger side but is also strongly family-oriented. What this means is that our guests enjoy connecting with brands that give them options to be themselves and cater to their different needs. With our multitude of better-for-you toppings and ingredients, we’re catering to our audience in more ways than one. It’s an approach that has worked and will continue to contribute greatly to the unstoppable momentum we’ve built in recent years.
Occhiogrosso: What steps does Blaze take to maintain quality in the midst of its nationwide growth over the years?
Kent: Our customers care about what they’re eating and where their food comes from. That’s the main reason they come to Blaze. We consistently surpass our customer’s expectations by going to great lengths to ensure that the ingredients we use are carefully sourced and fresh. To maintain this high quality, it’s essential we work closely with vendors that have these same values and don’t stray from what we believe to be important. Our food speaks for itself, and we’ve continued to innovate and improve whenever possible to provide our loyal fans with the best dining experience in the fast-casual pizza segment. Since our inception, we’ve never wavered from our commitment to featuring fresh ingredients free from artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners, and that has remained a key differentiator.
This has allowed us to build great momentum throughout, especially within the past several months, and we have the best of the best bringing Blaze to markets when and where it makes the most sense. In 2022, we are going to continue focusing our franchise development efforts on markets such as the Northeast and Texas.
Occhiogrosso: From an operations standpoint, what are the benefits of Blaze’s menu and product offerings?
Kent: Because our menu is built to deliver a BYO immersive ordering experience, our restaurant operations are simple and allow our customers to seamlessly create the pizza that fits their mood and cravings. Our staff goes through the different stages of building the pizza with each customer, and they fire it up in the oven once the customer is satisfied with their creation. This not only makes for a quick process but also naturally promotes an added customer service that they may not receive at other quick-service concepts. Additionally, it gives the owner and operators the ability to onboard new employees without the need for the traditional amount of training hours.
Occhiogrosso: Given the number of team members required to service a guest, how has the labor shortage affected Blaze franchisees, and what has Blaze done to assist its franchise community?
Kent: The labor shortage has affected not just some of our franchisees but all of them. In response, we are not only overhauling our marketing that touches consumers but also focusing on team members. This includes improving the music played in the stores, upgrading uniforms, and creating a more comfortable environment for employees to express themselves. We want our customers to express themselves through their unique pizza creations and employees to do the same through the work and dedication they apply each day at Blaze. A safe, fun, and friendly environment goes a long way in employee recruitment and retention.
Additionally, to keep our locations from becoming chaotic, we are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of prep steps and new product rollouts so as not to overwhelm our employees with new creations too often.
Occhiogrosso: What are some operational modifications that need to be made when items are added to the menu? How does Blaze streamline these processes system wide?
Kent: When we add a new signature pizza to the menu, we think of sourcing and distribution, food safety, operational ease, and cost. If all those boxes “check,” we then are able to move the product into a test. The test proves our operational ease and helps identify opportunities to simplify things further. One of the steps decided when we test; is being thoughtful for where the added ingredients will go in the assembly line. Whether it’s before the pizza goes into the oven or after it’s pulled out, it’s important that the additions do not disrupt the flow of the staff and maintain a low prep time to give customers the fast experience they expect when they dine at Blaze.
A new menu item means a new recipe and usually means new ingredients. We must develop training materials for how to receive and handle the new product(s) in our restaurants and distributors. It includes spec and quality checks as well as safe handling and storage protocols. We also develop training videos and written guides for our training teams to roll out to the field. Special considerations are made for our international locations when considering regional and religious needs for our partners in the Middle East and Canada.
Occhiogrosso: With supply shortages in the headlines every day, what changes, if any, has Blaze needed to make to its offerings, and how have franchises responded?
Kent: In addition to my experience as a panel/advisor at the University of Southern California’s Global Supply Chain Management, we have Marie Zhang leading our supply chain efforts at Blaze Pizza. She has worked with major brands such as Focus Brands and Yum! Brands and she tirelessly partners with our vendors to ensure complete transparency and the best possible terms for our franchisees. If a store is short on an item, we have a robust system for quality control that allows for many paths to manage the shortage. The last resort, in the instance of a shortage, is a vetted list of “like ingredients” that can be produced through the distributor or local markets if necessary.
Occhiogrosso: What measures has Blaze taken to ease or give guidance to its franchisees surrounding the dramatic increase in the cost of goods that is taking place today throughout the entire restaurant industry?
Kent: Our overall cost of goods is down from the prior year. We credit our micro efforts to partner with vendors and suppliers and macro influences on items such as cheese that have helped achieve these results. We have a best-in-class team ready to assist our franchisees and work with them to ensure we do everything we can to guide them through challenges the restaurant industry may face.
Occhiogrosso: Going forward, what does the future hold for Blaze Pizza from a menu and innovation perspective?
Kent: We will continue to prioritize the quality of our ingredients, vendor partnerships, and sustainability efforts in the months and years to come. Pizza is such a versatile meal that has become America’s national dish over time, and to satisfy everyone who dines at a Blaze Pizza restaurant, it’s critical we remain timely and culturally relevant by paying close attention to nutrition and consumer trends. Because we will always push the boundaries of pizza making, our guests can continue to expect innovative options and best-in-class quality ingredients for them to consider for their creations.
Pizza continues to be a food embedded into our culture. Innovation is a constant and necessary practice to keep this simple long, storied product relevant and one of America’s favorite foods.