The Race To Become "The Chipotle Of Pizza" Isn't Working Well For Everyone

"Eventually there will be a shakeout, there's no doubt about it."

There's a good chance that a new build-your-own pizza joint, arranged in the assembly line-style of Chipotle, has recently opened in your neighborhood. The promise is simple: you pick your toppings, and they fire up the pizza in about two minutes as you wait in line.

This nouveau pizza joint model has been exploding around the country, with chains like Blaze, Mod, and Pieology opening hundreds of new franchised locations.

So-called fast-casual pizza may be a small but hot corner of the restaurant business, but as some chains ascend, others have lost ground.

On Wednesday, Texas-based Pie Five reported that sales at restaurants open at least 18 months decreased by 17.3% during the three months ending in September. In the latest fiscal year, comparable store sales fell 16%. Pie Five now only has 84 locations, compared with 90 a year ago.

"Pie Five, they certainly are one of the early losers at this point," said Joe Pawlak, head of the advisory group at the consultancy Technomic. "They may turn things around, they certainly can, but any of the bigger ones are doing extremely well and growing dramatically."

Scott Crane, CEO of parent company Rave Restaurant Group, said in a release that he hopes to turnaround the business as Pie Five "successfully exits underperforming markets and works to improve its underlying unit economics." Crane was not immediately available to comment.

Meanwhile, two PizzaRev locations opened by Buffalo Wild Wings in Minnesota closed this year. Buffalo Wild Wings had opened the outlets in 2014 with intentions to expand, but abandoned that plan this year as it fought a broader battle with activist investors.

A venture capital fund founded by McDonald's former CEO Don Thompson is now a majority owner of the PizzaRev chain, which had 44 restaurants at the end of 2016. Pawlak said the chain was still expanding last year.

Growth in fast casual restaurants overall has been thwarted recently as traditional fast food chains improve the quality of their offerings and other restaurant chains lower their prices.

"Eventually there will be a shakeout, there's no doubt about it, but now there's still opportunity for growth," said Pawlak.

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