(Photo: Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza)
The concept behind Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza is simple: You pick your crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings, and your pie is popped into a blazing-hot oven for a mere 180 seconds. It then emerges, ready for your enjoyment. It’s fresh. It’s fast. It’s exactly what you want it to be.
If you’re thinking, “So it’s like Chipotle, but for pizza,” you’re onto something. During an interview with CEO and founder Rick Wetzel (yes, of pretzel fame), he explains that the idea was actually conceived within the walls of the fast-casual burrito chain.
“My wife, Elise, and I were looking for lunch one day in our hometown of Pasadena, Calif.,” he says. “We wanted pizza but were disappointed to find that there was nothing available that was both fast and fresh. So we ended up at Chipotle instead. Elise looked at me and asked if the Chipotle service model would work for pizza. That was our ‘aha’ moment.”
From that “aha” moment, they set out to create a pizza chain with a focus on “a few simple things: chef-driven food quality, elevated service levels, and engaging restaurant designs. Simply put, where fast food focuses on the value of the food, we focus on the value of the experience.” Basically, Blaze strives to be the whole package.
Wetzel’s inspiration comes at a time when there appears to be a greater demand for fast food made from fresh, high-quality ingredients. Pizza Hut recently reported a decline of 2 percent in sales for the fourth quarter of 2015, and an analyst blamed a lack of “meaningful menu innovation” for causing the decline.
While Blaze has quite a ways to go before it’s a threat to Pizza Hut (it has just under 100 stores across the U.S., compared with Pizza Hut’s 10,000 globally), Pizza Hut’s owner, Yum Brands, is taking note. It is testing redesigned restaurants in Texas tat featuring hotter ovens and sleeker interiors — not unlike what customers experience at Blaze.
(Photo: Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza)
When you first walk into a Blaze eatery, you’re greeted by a chorus of friendly hellos and the sound of dance-y, somewhat nondescript techno music. The feel is young and hip, slightly industrial, and just a tad self-aware. Each location is designed by award-winning architect Ana Henton — who, Wetzel says, “works to make sure that each one of our Blaze restaurants has unique touches and a soul — best described as feeling like, ‘Blaze really gets me,’ when you walk through the door.” It’s definitely aimed at the millennial crowd, but it’s not exclusionary. “We target millennials,” Wetzel says, “but we throw a wide tent for families, teens, kids after school, senior citizens, etc.”
Though the employees’ backward caps and visible tattoos may seem like it’s trying just a little too hard, the ambience at Blaze is relaxed, friendly, and fun. When I visited my local Blaze, I found the service to be quick and efficient without feeling rushed. The staff were attentive and eager to help me build my perfect pie.
Engineering that ideal combination of flavors is the fun part, and there are a few ways you can go about it. You can get a “Simple Pie” of mozzarella, Parmesan, and red sauce for $5, add single topping for 85 cents, or go crazy and pile on as many toppings as you want for $7.45. If you aren’t quite sure what you’re craving, Blaze has eight signature pizzas to choose from, all created by executive chef and “pizza whisperer” Bradford Kent.
The “Green Stripe.” (Photo: Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza)
Once you’ve made your choice, your pie is “fast-fire’d,” sliced, and served. The pizza you get isn’t the heavy, greasy fast food pizza you may be used to, and it’s not trying to be. Wetzel is fond of saying, “We’re taking pizza back to its roots 600 years ago — when pizzas were light, made with fresh ingredients, and cooked with fire. And this style of pizza is perfect for our 800-degree open-hearth ovens. On the other hand, the old legacy pizza brands (you know who they are!) make pizzas that are heavy with dough and cheese, making them poor candidates for fast cooking.”
But back to that pizza whisperer. Wetzel credits that find to his wife, who calls finding Kent the “world’s luckiest Google search.” Though Kent wasn’t actually looking for a consulting gig (he already had a job as the owner and executive chef of Olio Pizzeria), he agreed to help with dough development. “The short story,” Wetzel explains, “is that, over the course of the project, a bond was forged, and Brad joined Blaze Pizza full-time. In the end, Brad has turned out to be our secret weapon, helping turn our vision of a fast, fresh, affordable pizza into a chain of restaurants that consistently turns out fine-dining quality pizzas, topped any way you like, in 180 seconds, and all for about eight bucks.”
If you’re lucky enough to ask Kent about pizza, you’ll quickly see that it’s a subject he thinks about quite a bit. When I asked about the process for selecting ingredients, the response was much more passionate than I was expecting: “If you believe in ‘love at first sight,’ then you know what it’s like when you find the right thing. Some ingredients were identified on their first review. Most ingredients are like finding your soulmate — they can take years to find with dozens and even hundreds of failed attempts for success.”
This doesn’t apply just to pizza toppings, but also to engineering a perfect pizza dough. “There are dozens of styles of flours on the market,” Kent says, “ranging from low-protein cake flour to high-protein bread flour, coarse-ground semolina to wheat flour, American flour to Italian flour and many others. Flour is the backbone of our pizza dough; when I was unhappy with literally every flour on the market, I worked closely with a flour miller to custom-formulate our flour to yield a balance of light yet chewy texture, light crispiness that browns and chars under the intense heat of an open-hearth oven, has a golden hue that has a sweet, wheaty flavor, and has the right balance of protein and carbohydrates to support a long fermentation, and is easy to stretch. Once the perfect mates for our menu are discovered, they are tested and then take a few months to transition into all restaurants.”
(Photo: Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza)
In addition to its “classic” pizza dough, Blaze also offers a gluten-free crust that is made in house daily with filtered water and extra-virgin olive oil. Both crusts are also vegan, and can be topped with either of two red sauces, vegan “cheese,” and plenty of vegetables for a pizza that truly anyone can enjoy.
With so many options, it can be easy to go overboard on toppings. To prevent ingredient overload, follow Kent’s simple rule of “sauce and cheese, plus three,” and feel free to borrow a few of his favorite toppings: “I love fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, turkey meatballs, whole-milk ricotta, fire-roasted zucchini, wild baby arugula, and extra-virgin olive oil. If you ask anyone at our Pasadena location that works on the assembly line, they will tell you I get at least two of these toppings on every pizza I eat.”
By Kent’s standards, my Blaze creation may have been a little much, topping-wise, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I picked the classic crust and sauce, and topped it with fresh mozzarella, whole-milk ricotta, bacon, kalamata olives, mushrooms, red onion, and a sprinkling of sea salt.
(Photo: Claire Lower)
The crust was crispy, well-browned, and blistered with a bit of chew, and it had a nice bit of flop to it, as any good thin-crust pizza does. The sauce was full of tomato flavor, but it was quite sweet. I don’t mind a sweet pizza sauce, but I know some New Yorkers who would protest. Both cheeses were rich and creamy, and the bacon was fresh and crisp. I washed it all down with a blood-orange lemonade, which was perfectly sweetened and just tart enough.
I didn’t finish the whole thing (I actually made this pizza last three meals!), as I was saving room for the S’more Pie, which is really more of a regular s’more than a pie. It was good — not great. All the usual players were there: The chocolate was pretty standard (tasted like Hershey’s) and, though I ordered it warmed, it was lacking the gooey, melty, marshmallow goodness you get with a properly heated s’more.
(Photo: Claire Lower)
Of course, Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza is about the pizza, and in that it succeeds. Not only is it a great value — an eight-slice pie plus beverage will set you back less than $10 — but it’s fresh, hot, made to order, and tasty. In short: It’s a great quick lunch option and can be customized to fit almost any diet. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t get the roasted garlic, but that’s OK. Now I have a reason to go back.