With a commitment to customization, along with a five-ton deck oven, California-based PizzaRev continues to revolutionize how people think about and eat pizza.
Anyone who's ever ordered pizza for a large group knows the drill. One person wants pepperoni and mushroom. Another asks for only vegetables. Someone else has to have green olives, while yet another person pushes for every meat on the menu. And then there's the guy who only wants cheese. In the end, you get a few pies — some with half toppings — that make everyone happy enough.
To the founders of PizzaRev, though, "happy enough" isn't good enough. From their perspective, happy enough means compromise, and they won't ask customers to compromise. That's the idea behind this emerging fast-casual chain, which takes the pick-your-ingredients service style made popular by sector giants such as Subway and Chipotle and brings it to individual 11-inch pizzas.
"With the assembly-line process, we like to say Henry Ford gets the credit," says Nicholas Eckerman, co-founder and chief operating officer of PizzaRev. "It's taking a product that is all about sharing and making it individual. We want to do this in an environment that is modern, fun to be in, hip and casual at the same time."
While a number of fast-casual pizza concepts have popped up in recent months — for example, see FE&S's January 2014 issue for a profile of Pie Five Pizza — PizzaRev features the most unique parentage. In addition to Nicholas Eckerman, the chain's co-founders include his father, Rodney Eckerman; Rodney's long-time business partner, Irv
Zuckerman; and Irv's son, Jeff Zuckerman.
If some of those names sound familiar, there's a reason. For years, Rodney and Irv were co-CEOs of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, the radio empire that boats 243 million monthly listeners. The two had retired from Clear Channel when Nicholas came up with the idea of starting PizzaRev.
While Irv and Rodney bring a wealth of business experience to the table, it doesn't come as a surprise that the concept originated with Nicholas. Among the chain's founders, he has the most extensive foodservice background. In fact, Nicholas has spent his entire career in foodservice, with most of his training coming on the food and beverage side at high-end hotels, including several Ritz-Carlton properties. Immediately before co-founding PizzaRev, Nicholas served as food and beverage director at the Malibu Beach Inn hotel and spa, an exclusive boutique hotel in the wealthy and well-known area.
After leaving that post to start this new venture, Eckerman, with his partners, opened their first PizzaRev location near California State University, Northridge, in March 2012. After opening to "rave reviews," Eckerman says, the chain established two more units in the following six months. By the close of last year, PizzaRev had seven company-owned stores. It plans to average one new company-owned unit per month through 2014.
Those won't be the only new PizzaRevs to open this year, though. In March 2013, just a year after the concept's debut, Minnesota-based Buffalo Wild Wings became a minority partner in the company. Buffalo Wild Wings made the investment through its emerging brands program, which the company uses to buy into small concepts with large growth potential. The first Buffalo Wild Wings-owned PizzaRev should open in Minneapolis by the end of this year, Eckerman says.
Having Buffalo Wild Wings as an investor means PizzaRev's team now has access to the casual-dining chain's operational expertise and its valuable industry connections, Eckerman adds. "I definitely think there are [doors that can be opened through Buffalo Wild Wings]. They are adding to our company operationally; they're adding to our company as a partner and as a dynamic national brand."
The basic setup of PizzaRev will be familiar to pretty much everyone who's grabbed a quick bite out over the past decade. Diners come in and walk to the ordering line where they select their crust, either regular or gluten free.
Behind the counter, staff reach into a room-temperature box containing racks of pre-portioned dough balls (assuming a regular crust). A warm dough press flattens the sphere into a round, 11-inch shape. Staff then put the dough on a plastic paddle, and it begins its journey down the prep line. At this point, diners can choose from one of PizzaRev's "Our Way" pizzas — including offerings like margherita, BBQ chicken, and fennel and sausage — or decide to design their own custom pies.
Customers who opt for the latter walk down the line requesting toppings that staff portion from cold wells that sit behind a food shield. First come the four sauces (olive oil, red sauce, white sauce and barbecue) and then five cheeses (mozzarella, reduced-fat mozzarella, bleu, feta and ricotta). Next are the 11 meats, which range from traditional favorites like peperoni and sausage to more adventurous (for pizza) toppings, like spicy chorizo, followed by the vegetables and other toppings — 16 in all — including offerings like arugula, fennel seeds and capers.
Beneath the wells, undercounter refrigeration stores extra prepped toppings as well as romaine and spring mix lettuces, which serve as the base of entrée salads that diners can customize with fresh meats and veggies just like a pizza.
After selecting their main toppings, diners can further customize their pizzas with one of four "finishing sauces," including barbecue, basil, buffalo and pesto. Whether they go with a plain cheese pie or one with everything, the price remains the same.
At this point, a restaurant team member turns to the back wall to place the pie in the oven, which is undoubtedly the key to the operation. Instead of using a conveyor oven like many other chains, PizzaRev employs a gas-fired, stone deck oven capable of cooking about 20 pies at a time. The massive oven, weighing in at 9,600 pounds, is one of the largest stone deck ovens operating in the state of California, Eckerman adds.
While many traditional casual-dining pizza places use deck ovens, these units' cooking times typically don't meet the fast-casual model's need for speed. Two factors help PizzaRev overcome this obstacle. First, the oven can reach very high temperatures — more than 700 degrees F, in fact. Second, the chain developed a proprietary mix for a thin, Roman-style crust that cooks very quickly at high temperatures. "It cooks in under 3 minutes. By the time you pay at the register, get your drink and decide where to sit, your pizza is already ready," said Eckerman.
In addition to cooking individual pies quickly, the oven plays a big role in PizzaRev's "eatertainment" factor. Its sheer size, open deck and stainless steel exterior make the oven impressive in its own right. Add to that trained staff members constantly putting in pizzas, rotating the pies to get an even cook, moving the menu items across the deck and then removing the finished pies, and you've got a show right there, Eckerman says.
The beer and wine display add to PizzaRev's decor. In a glass-doored refrigerator behind the register sit four kegs, typically from local craft breweries, as well as bottles of wine. The metallic kegs, Eckerman notes, contribute to the chain's modern, industrial look, which features glass, metal and some wood.
The display aspect of PizzaRev's operations extends beyond the front of the house. In some locations, the chain places windows between the front and back of the house, allowing patrons to see the fresh, colorful produce displayed in the unit's walk-in cooler. Diners can also check out employees working the dough prep station, another key part of PizzaRev's operation.
With the customer volume and fast-cooking dough so essential to PizzaRev's success, it's no surprise that the chain dedicates one of three back-of-the-house stations almost exclusively to making and portioning dough. This station consists of a prep table with undercounter storage, various smallwares and a 60-quart floor mixer that mixes dough and uses a special attachment to grind large quantities of cheese.
Staffers work at this station throughout the day, making dough with the chain's proprietary mix. Upon completing a batch, staff portion it into personal pizza-sized balls and place them into dough boxes. Staff then place full boxes on racks and roll them into the walk-in cooler to proof for a full 24 hours. Measuring from 9-by-12 feet to 12-by-12 feet, these units hold around 1,000 dough balls at a time, along with the store's refrigerated produce and meat.
At the remaining stations, which are essentially interchangeable, staff prep cheese, vegetables and meat toppings. Each station consists of a worktable with undercounter storage, cutting boards, knives and other utensils. Notably, PizzaRev cuts all its vegetables by hand instead of relying on food processors. This approach, says Eckerman, yields higher quality toppings. While the more labor-intensive approach is also more expensive, the chain can afford to do this because of the fast-casual model's inherent cost savings, he adds.
"High quality produced on an assembly line takes away aspects that confine other restaurants, like table seating and service at the table," Eckerman adds. "We can produce much more product in a faster period of time. That allows us to take some of those costs down and give them back to our customers in speed and quality of product."
Despite the concept's fast start, PizzaRev's leadership finds time to tweak the company's model when necessary. One of the biggest changes has been to the size of the store. The first location measured about 2,000 square feet. That simply didn't provide enough seating for customers during peak demand times. In response, the chain has upped its unit size by about 600 square feet, with the front of the house consuming all of the increase. "It's a good thing to need to grow the seats of your restaurant because of the amount of business you're getting," Eckerman notes.
This extra space, he adds, allows the chain to make additions that actually give it a more relaxed, friendly feel. Heaters and fire pits have been installed in the outdoor patios of some locations, Eckerman says, which encourages customers to linger for a bit and enjoy the experience more.
The chain has also made additions that carry the principle of individualization deeper into the customer experience. One such example, the "Rev It Up" station, allows diners to add new seasonings and flavors to their finished pies, ranging from pizza standards like Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes to more offbeat offerings, like various hot sauces.
PizzaRev also features high-tech, touch screen-based soda machines offered by a world-leading beverage company. These units allow the chain to offer more than 150 soda options, including beverages mixed with flavors like cherry and vanilla. Notably, the chain has been able to install these machines in its stores thanks to the partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings, which brought PizzaRev into a national program for these dispensers.
"Our customers tell us they love the availability of flavors — they love the choices. It's been a success for us so far," said Eckerman.
After slightly more than two years in operation, PizzaRev has a strong track record and one major vote of confidence. Next on the agenda is growth through franchising. To foster such expansion, the chain has recently established its franchise system and hired an industry veteran as vice president of franchising, Eckerman says.
In fact, the chain has already signed several franchise agreements — all with experienced multiunit operators — that will bring PizzaRev units into several new states, including Utah, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Typically, the chain wants to locate its units in high-traffic areas that, among other characteristics, have other fast-casual restaurants nearby.
While such density equals stiff competition, Eckerman and the rest of the PizzaRev team aren't daunted. They're confident that the time for this new concept has come.
"We believe strongly in the success of fast-casual pizza," Eckerman says. "We think it's going to be the next big thing."