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Chipotle, Subway Want a Slice of the Fast-Casual Pizza Business

Chipotle, Subway Want a Slice of the Fast-Casual Pizza Business
Image credit: 15pictures.com

The competition for a slice of the fast-casual pizza pie is revving up in 2014.

Earlier this year, Chipotle helped finance Pizzeria Locale, a Denver restaurant that aims to find a happy medium between delivery pizza and upscale Italian. And Chipotle isn't the only one--a Subway franchisee plans to open a Subway Pizza Express in Lincoln, Neb., next year.

Pizzeria Locale attempts to take Chipotle's fast and easy customization style and apply it to pizzas. The restaurant allows customers to pick a base pizza and a wide array of toppings, including arugula, broccolini and meatballs, before cooking the pie in front of the customer's eyes. 

Related: Game On for Pizza Franchises

The original Pizzeria Locale opened in Boulder, Colo., in 2011, with a more time-intensive, formal format. The second, fast-casual pizzeria opened in May, with the support of Chipotle chairman, Steve Ells. Ells is a longtime friend of Pizzeria Locale's founders, Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson and Bobby Stuckey. His experience launching Chipotle from a single Denver location, as well as Chipotle's financial investment, helped the second Pizzeria Locale solve some of the riddles of fast-casual pizza.

"I have known [founders MacKinnon-Patterson and Stuckey] for years and I thought their pizzeria in Boulder presented the perfect opportunity to collaborate," Ells said in a statement. "Opening Pizzeria Locale using a model similar to Chipotle allows us to make extraordinary pizza, made with high-quality ingredients accessible to everyone."

One of the major challenges of creating a fast, freshly-made pizza is time. A traditional wood-fire oven takes far longer than the typical Chipotle customer wants to wait for a quick lunch. So, Pizzeria Locale created gas ovens that distribute heat more evenly. In these super-high-temperature ovens, pizzas bake in under two minutes.

Related: How Pizza Hut Made a Comeback

While Pizzeria Locale is currently only one fast-casual restaurant, it is looking to open a second and third location in Denver. Chipotle also operates six ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Other chains are trying to get a slice of the fast-casual pizza pie. Last week, a Subway franchisee announced plans to open a Subway Pizza Express on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The restaurant is reportedly only the second Subway Pizza Express in the U.S., and will serve personal pan pizzas.

Some Subway restaurants (though not the one already operating at Nebraska-Lincoln) already sell pizza that is essentially the same as the Pizza Express pies. With toaster ovens and choose-your-own toppings, the restaurant isn't trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead adopt traditional pizza-parlor tactics under a well-known sandwich brand.

Subway has no intention of opening a corporate-owned Pizza Express, according to a spokesperson. However, plenty of other chains are entering the competition. Next year, the co-founders of California Pizza Kitchen plan to debut a new fast-casual pizza concept. Fazoli's is scheduled to launch Venti-Tre in 2014. Additionally, Buffalo Wild Wings is backing Los-Angeles-based Pizza Rev and Sbarro launched Pizza Cucinova this year. 

Related: Nine Notable Pizza Entrepreneurs

Kate Taylor is a staff writer for Entrepreneur.com.

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