A myriad of concerns swirled through the minds of operators nationwide when COVID-19 was thrust upon their shoulders in March.
Blaze Pizza CEO Mandy Shaw says the keyword for her brand was agility.
The first item on the list was making sure franchisees were financially secure. The company provided full abatement of royalty fees for five weeks and 50 percent abatement in the following four weeks. Shaw says a number of franchisees received forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program after financial coaching.
The next objective was pivoting a business that was used to dine-in sales mixing 80 percent. Shaw refers to the process as “getting guerrilla.”
“It was about, how do we let people know we’re open, and it’s as simple as putting up banners and putting out street signs and thinking about creative ways to let people know that the business was there,” Shaw says.
In the fall, Blaze launched larger pizzas as part of an initiative to grow its digital delivery and carryout business, so pieces were already in place. During the pandemic, the fast casual onboarded Uber Eats—along with its existing partnerships with Postmates and DoorDash—and added contactless delivery. In addition, it introduced curbside carryout in about three weeks, which is now approaching 10 percent of sales; Digital is mixing 125 percent higher than it did pre-COVID.
“A lot of new people probably in certain demographics that may not historically use apps, delivery providers, and alike suddenly realized that that’s a real thing, and so that group has been tremendous for us,” Shaw says. “And as we’ve gotten dining rooms reopened, it has not eroded. There’s been slight declines in a couple of channels, but it’s certainly well outpacing the dining rooms reopening. So it actually looks pretty favorable for us in the back half of this year as business gets back to normal.”
The Pasadena, California-based chain also created new family bundles and started a weekly Instagram program with chef Brad Kent, who showed viewers how to make pizzas with Blaze’s DIY pizza kits.
To assist others, Blaze started the hashtag “BlazingItForward” and gave back to its community through donating 1,800 pounds of mozzarella to a local shelter, donating thousands of pizzas to first responders and healthcare workers, and entering Zoom classes of elementary-aged kids and teaching them how to make pizza.
More recently, Blaze drew national media coverage with a one-day promotion of its White Claw pizza on June 18. The dough was made fresh in the restaurant, with flour, yeast, extra virgin olive oil, salt, a pinch of sugar, and Mango White Claw instead of filtered water.
“I think because Blaze is a little bit irreverent as a brand, we have permission to have fun and that was just an easy way,” Shaw says. “We recently added White Claw to many of our locations across the U.S. and went to our chef Brad, and said ‘Hey, what do you think we could do that’s different and have some fun with this?’ … It really was just kind of a fun event. And as we figured out, we could put it in the restaurants—again giving people a way to experience Blaze in a different way. It’s an authentic messaging that says, ‘Hey, you’ve got a day to try something new.’ Not really interested in selling White Claw pizza on a daily basis, but just something to put a smile on people’s faces and just get it out there.”
Blaze’s 200 locations in its first five years earned it the designation from Technomic as the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.” The brand now has 345 units globally and about 200 of those have reopened dining rooms with restrictions. More are expected to open in some form in the next few weeks, Shaw says. Before the crisis, Blaze set a target of 500 stores by 2021.
The CEO notes that most locations have a dine safety leader responsible for matters like tending the drink station so people use different cups for refills and wiping down surfaces with peroxide-based cleaner.
The pizza chain is providing convenient mask bags for dine-in customers, as well.
“If you’re wearing a mask and you walk into a restaurant, if you think about it, if you take your mask off to eat, where do you put your mask?” she says. “We actually have a little bag that our desserts normally go in that’s perfectly sized to slide a mask into.”
As for the future of the industry, Shaw recalls speaking with partners who said “the appetite for delivery is bottomless.” That ongoing growth in demand puts a larger microscope on the relationship between operators and third-party delivery companies, which has been filled with tension since the pandemic started. Many locales like New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. have implemented emergency caps to relieve restaurants facing fees reaching 30-40 percent.
Shaw says the strength of the relationship depends on the provider. She prefers not to name names, but some companies are better at cultivating the relationship than others.
“As with any industry, the partnership between the vendor and the buyer is paramount, and some of them do it better than others,” Shaw says. “The ones that actually partner with the restaurant owners and acknowledge that we’re in this business together are the ones who are going to win.”
“It’s also about the consumer satisfaction,” she continues. “At a restaurant, you’re taking our product and delivering it to the consumers. So if you don’t handle the product well, you take too long, you don’t deliver the product at all and you just disappear, there’s a bigger consumer impact, so it’s more visible in terms of having to figure that out.”
Regarding future development, Shaw says long-term sustainable growth has always been a goal for Blaze. The fast-casual aims to not open restaurants just for the sake of it—the pandemic doesn’t change that model. The pizza brand is still scheduled to open more than 20 units this year.
She knows the industry will look different post-pandemic, particularly with the adaptation to off-premises and the decrease in saturation because of independents that didn’t make it.
What will remain, however, is consumers’ need for restaurants.
“Ultimately, the restaurant business, as much as there’s disruption in other industries, there’s a core of it that is just quality hospitality and great food,” Shaw says. “That doesn’t change. You can’t change that very much in terms of what people want to experience with friends and family. All of the consumer research that we’re seeing says the first thing that people want to do when life gets back to normal is go to a restaurant. It’s really top of their list of feeling normal again.”
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