Pizza in 2 minutes? Chipotle quietly tests the idea
The chain finances a restaurant where diners stand in line to order toppings and watch their food being made. Sound familiar?
Chipotle helped finance the Denver opening earlier this year of Pizzeria Locale, a restaurant that aims to serve pizza just as Chipotle does burritos. Diners standing in line choose from toppings like fresh mozzarella and prosciutto while watching their food being made.
Individual 11-inch pies cost around $6.50 and take a few minutes to make. Diners pay at the counter. A glass-enclosed, climate-controlled dough-making room is prominently placed in the restaurant for easy viewing.
Chipotle has become a model of restaurant success at a time when Americans aren't rushing to eat out. It and other chains like Panera Bread (PNRA) are taking business from both sit-down chains like Olive Garden and fast-food restaurants like McDonald's (MCD) as consumers go for fancier food without the fuss of table service.
While plenty of burger, Mexican and sandwich restaurants have staked out this middle ground around the country, pizza looks like the next frontier.
Pizza is an emotional dish for many Americans. Chicagoans, New Yorkers and others are profoundly attached to their local version: thin crust, deep dish, square or round. Often people order from a handful of chains, mostly pizza of the super cheesy variety, the kind that defines late-night eating for many college students.
It's a growing part of the American diet. About 75% of people report having had pizza once in a two-week period, up from 66% in 2003, according to NPD Group, a market-research firm. The younger the eaters, the more likely they are to choose it, according to the data.
It's also more challenging to pull off fast, premium pizza than burritos or burgers. Thin, Neapolitan-style crust, delicate and chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside, is traditionally cooked in a wood-fired oven. Baking requires a skilled cook to constantly shift the pizza, avoiding uneven hot spots. Making a pizza from scratch also typically takes longer than Chipotle patrons have to wait.
To speed the process and save on labor costs, Pizzeria Locale worked with engineers to produce gas ovens that distributed heat more evenly than a wood-fired oven, says Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, co-owner of the restaurant. The pizza rotates around the oven, cooking in about two minutes at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, convincing Americans to eat pizza low on cheese with a slightly charred crust "will be a challenge," he says.
"All these triple-cheese, stuffed this-and-that" pizzas don't improve taste, Mr. Mackinnon-Patterson says. "I want the canvas of the dough to be seasoned as you would a great salad. . . It's just not something that most Americans are used to and we realize that."
Some of Locale's ingredients, like broccolini and corn, might strike traditional pizza-lovers as odd. He hopes that tasting the pizza will convince people.
Pizzeria Locale in Denver is a partnership with Mr. Mackinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey, owners of a sit-down version of the restaurant, also called Pizzeria Locale, and Frasca Food and Wine, a high-end Italian restaurant in Boulder, Colo. They first met working at French Laundry, a Northern California restaurant and temple of American foodie culture.
After opening Frasca almost 10 years ago, Messrs. Mackinnon-Patterson and Stuckey opened the sit-down pizzeria in 2011 with waiters, a large menu of Neapolitan pizzas and a well-researched wine list.
"When I walked in, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what if they did this in a Chipotle format?' " says Steve Ells, Chipotle chairman and CEO and a longtime friend and Frasca customer.
Chipotle helped them retool the concept into a faster restaurant over about 18 months, with an opening this May. The original Chipotle also launched with a single Denver location.
Chipotle declined to give financial details of the agreement. The company is an investor in the Denver Locale and has the option to become majority owner in the future, a spokesman says.
Other restaurants have already rushed to crack this riddle. Denver-based Live Basil Pizza and Mod Pizza of Bellevue, Wash., among others, have opened in recent years, serving thin-crust pizza made to order at a counter and touting fresher, more diverse ingredients than standard fare at Pizza Hut or Domino's Pizza (DPZ).
A growing preference for thin, artisanal pizza helps make fast-but-good pizza possible, says Rick Wetzel, co-owner of Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza, a chain based in Pasadena, Calif.
"Very thin crust cooks faster," Mr. Wetzel says. He and his wife started the chain after craving a good pizza without a long wait, not finding one and ending up at a Chipotle, he says.
Mainstream pizza-makers are getting in on the trend, too. Pizza Hut introduced Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas for a limited time earlier this year to cater to the growing interest in light crust, especially among eaters under 35, says Carrie Walsh, vice president of marketing for Pizza Hut, which is owned by Yum Brands (YUM).
Pizza Hut didn't see a drop in sales of thick-crust pizza, a spokesman says. The company recently launched a new 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza to its menu, hoping to boost the already about 10% of sales that came from stuffed-crust pies.
At the sit-down Locale, waiters are asked why there is no pepperoni on the menu "literally 100 times a day," Mr. Stuckey says.
Without waiters to explain the Neapolitan concept, the restaurateurs decided the simplest answer was to eliminate the question. For the faster version in Denver, the team edited the menu, adding more traditional American pizzas, including pepperoni.
Red and white wine are served on tap there. Prosciutto is served freshly sliced from an Italian, cherry-red ham slicer while customers watch.
Messrs. Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson have toured Chipotles around the country to learn how the company builds a team of employees and worked with company executives to learn how it sources ingredients as a large chain and quickly replicates the model. They are considering locations for two more Denver restaurants, the Chipotle spokesman says.
Pizzeria Locale is Chipotle's second venture beyond Mexican cuisine, part of the 20-year-old company's push to keep its sales growth strong as it ages. It has opened six ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen restaurants since 2011 and plans to open more. "I don't think there is a kind of cuisine that wouldn't fit into the Chipotle format," Chipotle CEO Ells says.
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NEVER HEARD OF THIS PLACE AND NOT CRAZY ABOUT MEXICAN FOOD! WHAT THE F IS
UP WITH CHIPOLTE ANYWAY THEY ARE PUTTING IT IN EVERYTHING! CAN'T GO OUT FOR
A REGULAR BURGER OR PIZZA OR TACO ANYMORE IT HAS TO BE FILLED WITH MORE
AND MORE CRAP AND HOT SAUCE AND PEPPER AND CHEESE ETC.... NO WONDER MOST
PEOPLE ARE OBESSE FAT OVERWEIGHT AND HAVE HEALTH PROBLEMS THESE DAYS!
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