The Rise of Fast Casual Pizza

It appears like there’s always a new trend around the corner in the UK’s foodservice industry.  Just as consumers are becoming used to new concepts like single dish restaurants, or getting to grips with flavours from new cuisines, the industry offers up another choice to the UK’s adventurous eaters.

Like many of the most recent (and most successful) additions to the UK’s dining landscape, the newest trend tipped for success comes from the USA. Fast casual pizza has been making big waves across the pond for a couple of years now, with new small scale start-ups reinvigorating a sector traditionally ruled by local eateries and large chains. In 2015, three of the USA’s top growing brands were fast casual pizza businesses, a remarkable feat considering that the segment leader – Blaze Pizza – only opened its first restaurant in 2012. 

Now, with Seattle chain MOD Pizza opening its first UK locations in Leeds and Brighton, it looks like fast casual pizza is set to be the latest trend taking over the UK. But what exactly makes the concept so different from existing locations, and how relevant is it to the wider foodservice industry in the UK?

What is fast casual pizza?

One of the most important aspects of fast casual pizza is choice, with locations aiming to please a variety of requirements and tastes. Instead of giving customers a choice of pre-set menu items, customers are instead offered a list of ingredients, and are able to create their own unique dishes from scratch.

Although some brands do provide “hints” towards flavour combinations they could choose, fast casual pizza effectively lets customers work from a blank slate, choosing everything from the sauce, toppings, cheese, and in some cases base. The choice isn’t always limited to just pizza either, and everything from sides like chips to salads can be customised from the bottom up. 

Another important aspect of these new restaurants is evident in the name “fast casual” – speed of service. Once orders are processed, it can take as little as two minutes to prepare and cook an item from scratch.

Fast casual pizza locations also mirror the wider casual dining sector, and pride themselves on offering products that are markedly “premium”. These new locations know that consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the foods they eat, and that provenance, sustainability, and are just as important as choice and speed when attracting business.

Why has fast casual pizza become so popular?

The reason fast casual pizza has arguably been such a success in the USA – and has the potential to be in the UK - is that its main selling points are driven by aspects increasingly valued by consumers. 

Choice in particular is something highly prized by younger generations, who when selecting somewhere to eat out are more likely to head to places that offer the prospect of a unique experience. With its almost endless array of combinations, fast casual pizza does just that, allowing customers to create menu items that are individual to them. This choice is also a great hook to encourage repeat custom, with customers able to recreate their favourites, or play around with new creations. 

Fast casual pizza’s speed has also help it stand out from existing pizza and casual dining operations. With minimal wait time, and many restaurants choosing not to opt for table service, these new locations have arguably made pizza a realistic choice for those looking for an authentic style product without the wait. In the US, some have said this has opened up pizza to the lunch market, making pizza a viable option for time short customers just looking for a quick bite to eat.

Another differentiating aspect is the fact that many locations offer all pizzas (and often sides), regardless of the number or choice of toppings, at a fixed price. This in particular sets them apart from many pre-existing chains, where toppings are often placed at different price points, effectively limiting the choice for customers looking to save money.

How relevant is the trend?

When a new food trend makes its way into the UK, it generally doesn’t take long to filter down into existing restaurants; just look at the number of restaurants and pubs offering their own spin on the still thriving BBQ trend. However, the choice and speed required for fast casual pizza makes it a slightly different prospect, any many caterers might be wondering how relevant the trend is to them. 

Although it’s safe to say that most operators would perhaps find it difficult to match the cooking speed of fast casual locations without the right equipment, that doesn’t mean that pizza is off limits. 

Instead, operators can dial up the choice aspect of fast casual pizza, offering a plain base that can then be customised with a range of ingredients. This doesn’t mean needing to source a wide range of new products to use, and offering ingredients already to hand in the kitchen as toppings is a great way to make the most of day to day stock; most vegetables, meats, herbs, and even ingredients like sliced potato (popular in Rome and Genoa) work well as options. With only the dough needing to be made from scratch – with pre-made options a potential choice – offering customisable pizza could be a more cost effective way to tap into current trends than first thought.

It’s always worth remembering that not all food trends stick, and that some can vanish almost as quickly as they appear. However, with MOD Pizza looking to have a total of 5 UK sites by the end of 16, and more US (and US inspired) chains set to follow, it looks like fast casual pizza might be here to stay.

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