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In the next few years, a new kind of chain pizza restaurant will pop up by the thousands across the country and beyond, pouring tomato sauce and grating mozzarella over America's culinary landscape in the race to become "the Chipotle of pizza."
That means diners get to customize their own pizzas as they're prepared in assembly-line fashion in an environment somewhere between fast-food and upscale. The pizzas are usually 11 to 12 inches, cost about $7 and are baked in a super-hot oven, so diners are sitting down to eat within minutes. Like Chipotle, the newest pizza chains tout premium ingredients -- organic baby spinach, Fra' Mani salami, porcini mushrooms or bacon marmalade. And they say they're changing the way Americans consume pizza; it's not just about delivery anymore (and chains such as Pizza Hut and Domino's are adapting to catch up).
Rick Wetzel, the name behind Wetzel's Pretzels and co-founder of Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza, points out that 41 percent of Americans eat pizza once a week and 90 percent eat it once a month. "I think that this category is probably good for 5,000 restaurants across the U.S. in seven to 10 years. ... I want my share of them."
Anthony Carron, chef and co-founder of 800 Degrees Pizzeria, says its Westwood location in Los Angeles has sold more 275,000 pizzas since it launched last year. Mr. Wetzel says the Blaze in Pasadena is "doing upward of 1,000 pizzas a day. The numbers are insane."
More build-your-own pizzerias seem to open every day. Spin Pizza of Kansas City, Mo., now has locations in Orange County, Calif., and plans to open a Huntington Beach, Calif., pizzeria in the spring; Pizza Press of Anaheim, Calif., is developing a franchising strategy; and the founders of California Pizza Kitchen are expected to launch a yet-to-be-announced customizable-pizza concept this year.
How to keep up with them all? Here's a guide to several major contenders.
800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizza
Number of locations: Three with eight more planned for this year, in Southern California and Las Vegas. To come: San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.
The pizza: These are Neapolitan, hand-stretched pies with toppings such as prosciutto di Parma, Fra' Mani salami, bacon marmalade, buffalo mozzarella or truffle cheese, cooked in a wood-burning oven.
The price: A Margherita pizza is $6.65; add-ons are $1 to $6. Specialty pies such as the Vongole (fresh clams, pecorino, garlic, cracked black pepper and parsley) are $8.85 to $12.85.
The sell: 800 Degrees bakes its pizza with wood. Also, "it's nice enough that you can come here on a date," Mr. Carron says.
Number of locations: Six are open in Southern California, with 13 more opening this year -- and maybe more, Chief executive Wetzel says. Across the U.S., 45 stores are planned this year.
The pizza: Thin pressed-dough pizzas; start with a Simple Pie (tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan) and add toppings such as applewood bacon, crumbled meatballs, ricotta and artichokes. Signature pies include the Green Stripe (pesto, chicken, red peppers, garlic, mozzarella and arugula)
The price: A Simple Pie is $5; a one-topping pizza is $5.85; and any build-your-own or Blaze specialty pizza is $7.45.
The sell: It's chef-driven fast-casual. Bradford Kent of Olio Pizzeria developed the pizza, including the dough, which ferments for 24 hours. "It's a $15 pizza for $7," Mr. Wetzel says.
Live Basil Pizza
Number of locations: The first three opened in Colorado last year, followed by a fourth in Los Angeles. The company won't disclose expansion plans and currently doesn't franchise.
The pizza: Neapolitan pizzas from a gas-fired brick oven with ingredients such as fresh goat cheese, bison sausage and organic baby spinach.
The price: Choose up to three toppings plus fresh vegetables for $8.50. Cheese pizza is $8, and signature pies, such as Italian sausage and wild mushroom, are $8 to $10.
The sell: Slightly more upscale, with a lot of marketing emphasis on its organic tomato sauce and local and wild ingredients. The fresh basil is fresh, snipped from plants at the counter.
Number of locations: The Seattle-based company opened its first MOD Pizza ("made on demand") in 2008 and has 14 locations on the West Coast, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. "We hope to grow to about 40 stores this year," says co-founder Scott Svenson, with 100 more stores by the end of 2015.
The price: Pizzas are $7.47 each with unlimited toppings; a mini (6-inch) pizza is $4.77.
The sell: Uber-family-friendly, with hand-spun milkshakes, garlic knots and cinnamon knots, and diners are greeted with gusto when they enter.
Number of locations: 15 in California and one in Colorado. Founder Carl Chang says he doesn't have "a preconceived number" of planned locations, but expect more franchises soon.
The pizza: Super-thin-crust flatbread pizza baked in Wood Stone ovens; either choose your own toppings or pick one of Pieology's seven combos.
The price: $7.50 with unlimited toppings, $6 for its classic cheese pizza.
The sell: Mr. Chang says his goal is to "really get connected to the local community, local schools." One pizza in each quarter of the year at each location is named for a resident.
Number of locations: There are seven stores, and 10 additional stores are planned for the Los Angeles area in the next year. "It's a pretty quick growth path," says Irv Zuckerman, with several franchisees in place in Orange County, San Diego County and elsewhere.
The pizza: Pressed-dough pizza that PizzaRev calls "Roman-style thin and crispy." Choose your sauce (tomato, white, olive oil or barbecue), cheese (mozzarella, feta, blue or ricotta), then any of the 27 toppings on its menu. There's also a separate condiment bar with 20 to 30 kinds of sauces and spices.
The price: They're all $7.99.
The sell: The stone-bed double-sided ovens are meant for fast production, to cut down on waiting times.
Number of locations: Five in Southern California with 160 franchises planned over the next five years, co-founder Samit Varma says.
The pizza: Pressed-dough flatbread-style pizzas baked in a conveyor belt convection oven. Choose your crust flavor, sauce (tomato, basil pesto, tangy barbecue or olive oil), toppings and final seasonings.
The price: Any pizza with unlimited toppings is $7.99. Starving Artist pizzas such as a Margherita, pepperoni or Island Pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, caramelized onion, crispy bacon, pineapple and basil) are $5.99.
The sell: Multiple flavors of pizza dough, such as traditional, whole-grain and flax seed, and spicy "firecracker." Top any pizza with arugula, barbecue sauce, balsamic glaze, chipotle powder or truffle salt, among other options.