The Next Generation Of Pizza Is Descending Upon New York

This year, three fast casual pizza chains will attempt to win customers in the country's most opinionated pizza market.

When Michael Lastoria left New York City for DC to open &pizza, a Chipotle-style, fast casual pizza joint, he made a bet with himself: If the business was successful enough to open a location in New York, he'd get an "&" tattoo.

Four years later, Lastoria is making good on that bet.

Next week, &pizza plans to open its first Manhattan location, joining a small group of fast-casual pizza chains willing to try their luck in the country's most opinionated pizza market.

In May, California-based Blaze Pizza dipped its toes in New York, opening on Staten Island. Pieology, another California chain, recently signed leases for two New York locations — one in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, the other in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This month, &pizza debuts in Manhattan's Flatiron district, its 22nd outlet in total.

"When I opened up the first pizza shop, we had no idea if it was going to work," said Lastoria. The former ad man, with long, grungy hair, a coarse beard, and a thick band on his ring finger, forged from a Mexican peso, would absolutely slay in a Dave Grohl lookalike competition for CEOs.

In other parts of the US, the Chipotle-but-pizza concept is young but growing fast — tapping into a lunch crowd which wants a quick, customized pie, assembled in the build-your-own manner that is all the rage in today's fast casual food business.

Blaze Pizza, which boasts LeBron James as a spokesperson, and Seattle-based MOD Pizza have roughly 200 locations each, while Pieology has about 135. Until now, none had broken into New York City, a fearsome market with punishingly high rents, and no shortage of excellent pizza.

But these next-generation chains now seem willing to give the city a shot — pizza delivery giants Domino's and Papa John's were able to build a presence there, after all.

Investors have poured millions into this promising new corner of the pizza world, but signs of trouble have also emerged. Dallas-based Pie Five saw same-store sales fall 17.4% by the end of 2016, and has recently closed 18 locations, leaving it with a total of 86. It has also been sued by a franchisee who claimed the company misled them about sales and profitability.

Another problem: "They're all very similar," Lastoria said of the bigger chains in the industry, who have similar menus and aesthetics. He's trying to set &pizza apart with design-focused stores that adopt the chain's punk-inspired, black-and-white theme, and feature local food brands.

And if that doesn't work, consumers will at least notice that &pizza's pies are oblong — a huge difference from any New York slice.

Inside The Race To Become The Chipotle Of Pizza

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