Dave Wood wants to do for pizza what Chipotle Mexican Grill did for burritos. Wood, who lives much of the year in Sarasota, is the founder and chief executive of Firenza, a growing chain of restaurants where customers can order individual-sized pizzas, choosing among 40 toppings, and have the pie at their table in less than four minutes.
His first Firenza restaurant opened in early 2015 in Fairfax, Virginia. Wood said he has 60 more franchises open or committed to open in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and Florida. By the end of 2017, he expects to have 200 restaurants opened or committed to opening, including locations in Tampa, Orlando and South Florida. He is still looking for a franchise partner for Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The market is new, but competition is already stiff.
One of the leaders in this field is Blaze Pizza, which started in 2012 in southern California, and now has 150 restaurants around the country, including one in Sarasota. Basketball star LeBron James is a leading investor in Blaze, which is ranked among the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the nation.
MOD Pizza, founded in Seattle in 2008, is growing rapidly, as well. MOD, which stands for Made on Demand, has 110 restaurants in 16 states, with plans to open dozens more in the next year.
“That’s just the start,” says Mandy Detwiler, managing editor of Pizza Today, the industry’s leading trade journal. Detwiler ticks off a list of chains, including Pieology Pizzeria, a California-based chain with more than 100 restaurants and $75 million in sales in 2015 that soared to 38th on Pizza Today’s Top 100 pizza companies. She also cites Persona Pizzeria, founded by award-winning chef Glenn Cybulski, which claims its 800-degree ovens can prepare personal pizzas in 90 seconds.
“This trend has quite a lot of room to grow,” Detwiler says. “But are all these places going to make it? Probably not.”
Wood is undaunted. He says the nation’s appetite for pizza, which translates into $46 billion in revenue annually, shows no signs of abating. The new fast casual restaurants will open a new stream of revenue, he says, because customers will be able to get a pizza during their lunch hour as quickly as they get a burger, sub sandwich or Chipotle burrito.
“Our goal is not world domination, anyway,” Wood says of Firenza’s strategy. “We just want to be the best.”
Wood knows the pizza business. In 1981, he dropped out of the University of North Carolina during his junior year to manage a Domino’s. Within a year, he was managing seven stores. In two years, at the age of 23, he was supervising 30 Domino’s.
Wood comes from modest means. But Domino’s franchise owner Dan Shefte helped Wood acquire his first Domino’s in Manassas, Virginia, when he was 24. Wood eventually owned 17 Domino’s, as well minority stake in several Jersey Mike’s sub shops. The key, he says, was recognizing reliable, hard-working employees and putting them in the right positions.
“I was very confident in my ability to see talent in other people,” he says. “And that is what you need if you want to run a number of business successfully, because you can’t be at all of them at once.”
As he approached his mid-50s and saw his four children head off on their own, Wood decided to sell his restaurants and semi-retire in Sarasota, devoting his time to his family and to playing golf and full court basketball. He was happy, but something was missing.
Wood found what he needed when a friend asked him to fly to Southern California in spring 2014 to check out a new fast casual pizza spot his friend was considering investing in. “We tried it and I loved the concept,” Wood says. “But I didn’t love the pizza. The crust seemed more like a tortilla. I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can develop a crust we like and still be able to make it fast enough to play in this market.’”
Wood and a partner borrowed a friend’s restaurant after hours and spent nearly 200 hours testing 30 different recipes for crust. They settled on a dough that bakes quickly but still delivers the distinct flavor and texture of pizza. They use a stone hearth oven that cooks at 500 degrees on the bottom and 1,000 degrees at the top.
“It creates a crunchy bottom but a soft crust,” Wood says. “We think we hit it just right.”
In developing Firenza, Wood was also influenced by his wife of 34 years, Nancy, who is a trained nutritionist and registered nurse. The chain offers 40 toppings, including asparagus, spinach and avocados, as well as salads and gluten-free crust.
“We want to give customers the health options, but we want it to be their choice,” he says.
Wood owns three Firenzas in northern Virginia. Franchises typically cost about $400,000 to open, he says. In addition to speed, cost and crust, Wood says another factor that ultimately will determine the success of his chain and others vying to succeed in the fast casual pizza market is where the restaurants are positioned.
“I still subscribe to what Dave Thomas used to say when building a new Wendy’s,” Woods says. “Thomas looked for the busiest McDonald’s and wanted to be next to it. The same for us, although it may be more Chipotle and Panera’s.”
Pizza Today’s Detwiler says the number of pizza restaurants in the United States has remained relatively constant at around 76,000. She does not expect that will increase sharply.
The trend lines are favorable, however. More diners are willing to pay more, up to $10 to $12 for lunch, if they perceive the quality to be better than standard fast-food fare such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell. They are also seeking choices, which is what makes personal pizzas with an abundance of toppings so desirable. And they want it fast.
Wood, who is back working 50 hours a week, says he is confident that Firenza will be one of the survivors. He adds that he has no regrets leaving his brief retirement behind.
“This has been incredibly challenging, but incredibly fun,” he says. “I’ve met so many great people. It’s going to be exciting to see how this progresses.”