These Founders Wanted to Create the ‘Chipotle of Pizza.’ Now, Their LeBron James-Backed Business Is Aiming for an IPO

LeBron James, the Boston Red Sox, mall pretzels: These are crucial ingredients in Blaze Pizza’s  ambitious recipe for growth.

Serial entrepreneurs and spouses Elise and Rick Wetzel co-founded their Pasadena, California-based company in 2011 with a simple, if hardly unique, idea: Let’s create the Chipotle of pizza. The dough and toppings would be “artisanal” (roasted garlic, balsamic glaze). The pies would be made to order, in an open kitchen behind a glass counter, and cooked for the hungry customer within three minutes.

It’s a popular franchise concept, one that has Blaze competing with several startups, including & Pizza, MOD, and Pieology, as well as giant incumbents like Domino’s. But Blaze has quickly become a leader, with more than 320 national locations, a projected $400 million in sales this year, and plans for an IPO. “From the very first restaurants we opened, we had this vision that we were going to grow it to a thousand,” says Elise Wetzel, the company’s chief marketing officer.

The Wetzels have a particularly impressive track record in picking partners, thanks in part to Rick Wetzel’s experience as the co-founder of another carb chain, mall staple Wetzel’s Pretzels. “When you have a young idea, it’s helpful to not have too many voices in the room,” says Elise. “But as you mature, if they’re smart voices and sophisticated voices, you don’t want to be so insular as to not bring in smart partners.”

Film producer John Davis, who invested in Wetzel’s, and celebrity financial adviser Paul Wachter helped Blaze line up high-profile backers. These included journalist Maria Shriver, Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, and basketball star James–who ditched a McDonald’s deal to endorse Blaze.

Two years ago, the Wetzels took a “substantial minority” investment from Brentwood Associates, a 47-year-old Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in food and other consumer-focused businesses. “I’ve never been involved with a company that has this much brand recognition,” says Rahul Aggarwal, a partner at Brentwood, who also praises Blaze’s operations and core product.

Brentwood’s partners say they prefer to work with founders–which can be a departure from private equity’s sometimes cutthroat reputation for dumping entrepreneurs. “Philosophically,” Aggarwal says, “our view is that their continued involvement is additive.

William Barnum, who co-founded Brentwood’s private equity arm in 1984 and now oversees about $2.25 billion in assets under management, pitches his firm as a growth accelerant, not a repair shop. “We’re not buying things that are in trouble or that generally need to be turned around. We go into things that are good, and here are 10 ways we can help you grow faster,” explains Barnum, who now sits on Blaze’s board with Aggarwal.

Most important, according to the Wetzels, Brentwood brings the expertise Blaze needs to prepare for an IPO–while respecting the founders’ voices and experience. “Brentwood had reached out to us a lot, quietly attended one of our franchise conferences, visited us several times, and got to know us on a personal level,” Rick recalls. “At the end of the day, it’s not who’s bringing the most money–it’s who’s bringing the most strategic help.”

Barnum attributes some of his firm’s let’s-grow-together philosophy to the partners’ shared identity–most of them grew up in the Midwest or upstate New York. “It’s funny–­we’re in California, but we do really have a Midwestern firm,” he says. “We had middle-class parents who taught us, ‘Here’s the right way to do things.’ “

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These Founders Wanted to Create the ‘Chipotle of Pizza.’ Now, Their LeBron James-Backed Business Is Aiming for an IPO