Seattle's Pizza Wars

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Ally and Scott Svenson were constantly trying to figure out how to feed their four hungry boys quickly and affordably between sports practices and games. They knew they didn’t want fast food, but they also knew their tab could hit $120 nightly if they went to a higher-end restaurant. “The solve was always something like Chipotle,” says Ally Svenson, “but you can’t eat that way every night.” Standing in long lines at the Chipotle in Bellevue, they recognized other parents trying to feed their children quickly. A chance introduction a little while later to a friend looking to grow his pizza-by-the-slice business in California sparked an idea: Why not create a place that cranked out great pizzas quickly—real quickly?

The result is MOD Pizza, which sells a made-on-demand, 11-inch, thin-crust pizza in 10 varieties—or build your own—for $6.88. The pies are served in two to three minutes, thanks to huge ovens that operate at 800 degrees. The Svensons opened the first MOD in late 2008, at One Union Square in downtown Seattle, to great success. Four and a half years later, MOD has eight locations—four in Seattle and four in the suburbs—and the Svensons are getting ready to take the company national. They plan to double the number of locations in 2013, says Scott Svenson, who recently stepped into day-to-day operations as CEO.

MOD, which is short for “made on demand,” isn’t the only aspiring Seattle pizza chain operator looking to grab a slice of the $32 billion national market. Don Bellis and Jay Gigandet opened The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits, a rock ’n’ roll themed gourmet pizzeria, in Tacoma in 1995, and quietly began franchising in 2005. In the past two years, they added eight more units, bringing the total to 18. “In 2013, we’ll open another six to eight locations,” says Gigandet, the company’s CFO.

A Canadian franchisor alone plans to open 40 Rock units in the next 10 years, and company locations and other franchisees will open restaurants in Texas, Colorado, California, Idaho and Alaska.

Also on the move, albeit at a more measured pace, is Caffé Vita founder Michael McConnell, who opened the upscale pizzeria Via Tribunali on Capitol Hill to much fanfare in 2004. With four restaurants in Seattle, McConnell has opened two pizza parlors outside Washington state in the past two years—one in Portland in late 2011 and another on the Lower East Side of Manhattan last year. His 2013 plans for Via Tribunali, which sells authentic, certified Neapolitan-style pizzas, call for a second New York City location and another in Los Angeles.

Whether it is about using more local ingredients, turning pizza into fine dining or making it quality fast food, a growing number of Seattle entrepreneurs are ready to compete for a bigger share of the market. Why now?

One of the biggest reasons is that the overall pizza market is growing rapidly, says Darren Tristano, senior vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm covering the restaurant industry. According to Technomic’s latest Pizza Consumer Trend Report, 41 percent of consumers polled say they now eat pizza once a week, up from 26 percent two years ago.

Locally, the pizza scene has long been dominated by independent, stalwart delivery companies like Pagliacci Pizza, founded in 1979, and Zeeks Pizza, founded in 1993, as well as the national delivery and sit-down chains such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut. That said, there have been few choices outside of delivery for years, leaving the market ripe for newcomers.

“It’s just a market that has been underserved for a long time,” says McConnell. “There haven’t been a lot of options. There is some great pizza in Seattle and a lot of mediocre pizza.”

“Pizza has always been a business with a rich tradition of independents,” adds Matt Galvin, co-owner of Pagliacci. “We’re seeing a number of new companies now because a lot of people are trying to come up with the next Chipotle [of pizza]. There’s also been an influx of Italian-style pizza.”

In addition, many of the new entrants, including Seattle restaurant entrepreneurs like Tom Douglas (Serious Pie) and Ethan Stowell (Ballard Pizza Company) offer artisan pizzas with fresh ingredients to capitalize on the local food trend. Many are not head-to-head competitors as they target different markets: Some are neighborhood joints, others look for affluent customers, still others are trying to deliver an authentic Italian experience. The Rock is a sit-down operation while MOD serves the fast-casual segment looking for a quick bite to eat.

But all tout their fresh, sometimes locally sourced, ingredients.

“Seattle is a good food city, one with good palates and an understanding that handmade and fresh ingredients are signs of quality,” says Dan Black, president of Zeeks Pizza. “Seattle is often at the cutting edge of innovation.”

Tristano agrees. “Seattle is a very interesting part of the country where more people care about local sourcing and environmental issues,” he notes, citing fine dining establishments and celebrity chefs such as Tom Douglas as early champions of using fresh, local ingredients.

For these reasons, the Seattle scene has seen a flurry of new activity as many entrepreneurs recognized the opportunity to sell a better pie. In addition to MOD Pizza’s eight locations and Via Tribunali’s six, other pizza companies coming into being with multiple locations in the past few years include:

 

● Tutta Bella Founded in 2004 by Joe Fugere, Tutta Bella is famous for serving a pie to President Obama in 2012 when he visited Seattle and, more important, for becoming Seattle’s first Vera Pizza Napoletana certified pizzeria.

 

● flying squirrel pizza company Open for dinner only, Flying Squirrel was founded in 2008 by Bill Corey, a former Starbucks manager and bassist with the Seattle band Visqueen. Its three neighborhood spots serve New York-style pizzas with mostly organic ingredients.

 

● palermo pizza & pasta Open for a decade in Ballard and on Capitol Hill, Palermo recently added a gluten-free crust to its options for only $2 extra, regardless of size. The pizzas still come in four sizes, a departure from the modern menu trend.

 

● serious pie Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most successful restaurant entrepreneur, opened his first pizzeria in downtown Seattle in 2006, following it with another in South Lake Union in 2011. Don’t look for Douglas to start a pizza chain. He says he has too many other restaurant ideas to bring to life.

 

● zaw Opened in 2008 and now with seven suburban Seattle locations, Zaw offers a bake-at-home pizza topped with the “freshest, organic ingredients sourced from local farmers.” This year, another Zaw will open in Kirkland.

 

Many of these newer entrants, as well as revered local chains like Pagliacci Pizza and Zeeks Pizza, believe they can do a better job serving their customers by remaining in Seattle.

“We don’t have any aggressive plans to franchise or expand nationally,” says Galvin, who doubled Pagliacci to 24 locations, most of them delivery outlets, after purchasing the company 12 years ago. “We’re very focused on taking care of customers in our own backyard.”

Fugere says Tutta Bella concentrates on delivering quality, not fast growth. “It’s deliberate growth,” he says. “Growth is in our DNA, and it just depends upon whether the team is ready and the real estate is right. When we feel we’re ready, we’re going to add the next restaurant.” In 2013, the Seattle company will most likely open two new pizzerias in Western Washington, Fugere says.

Zeeks Pizza, with six corporate units, started franchising in 2006 and now has four local franchise locations. Black says the company also plans to join the jump to national markets, but not just yet. Corporate will open a seventh Seattle location in 2013, and a franchise will open in Bothell.

As Seattle’s home-grown pizza entrepreneurs try to compete nationally, they will come up against some established competitors.

“Italian food and pizza is a very saturated market with full and limited service already in competition for the stomach,” Tristano says. As the Seattle players go outside the area, he notes, they will have to deal with localized flavor profiles, independent Italian restaurant and pizza operators, and a host of companies trying to capitalize on the pizza craze.

Seattle’s pizzapreneurs can only hope that new customers are as eager for their pizzas as they have been for Starbucks coffee. 

Standing in long lines at the Chipotle in Bellevue, they recognized other parents trying to feed their children quickly. A chance introduction a little while later to a friend looking to grow his pizza-by-the-slice business in California sparked an idea: Why not create a place that cranked out great pizzas quickly—real quickly?
The result is MOD Pizza, which sells a made-on-demand, 11-inch, thin-crust pizza in 10 varieties—or build your own—for $6.88. The pies are served in two to three minutes, thanks to huge ovens that operate at 800 degrees. The Svensons opened the first MOD in late 2008, at One Union Square in downtown Seattle, to great success. Four and a half years later, MOD has eight locations—four in Seattle and four in the suburbs—and the Svensons are getting ready to take the company national. They plan to double the number of locations in 2013, says Scott Svenson, who recently stepped into day-to-day operations as CEO.
MOD, which is short for “made on demand,” isn’t the only aspiring Seattle pizza chain operator looking to grab a slice of the $32 billion national market. Don Bellis and Jay Gigandet opened The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits, a rock ’n’ roll themed gourmet pizzeria, in Tacoma in 1995, and quietly began franchising in 2005. In the past two years, they added eight more units, bringing the total to 18. “In 2013, we’ll open another six to eight locations,” says Gigandet, the company’s CFO.
A Canadian franchisor alone plans to open 40 Rock units in the next 10 years, and company locations and other franchisees will open restaurants in Texas, Colorado, California, Idaho and Alaska.
Also on the move, albeit at a more measured pace, is Caffé Vita founder Michael McConnell, who opened the upscale pizzeria Via Tribunali on Capitol Hill to much fanfare in 2004. With four restaurants in Seattle, McConnell has opened two pizza parlors outside Washington state in the past two years—one in Portland in late 2011 and another on the Lower East Side of Manhattan last year. His 2013 plans for Via Tribunali, which sells authentic, certified Neapolitan-style pizzas, call for a second New York City location and another in Los Angeles.
Whether it is about using more local ingredients, turning pizza into fine dining or making it quality fast food, a growing number of Seattle entrepreneurs are ready to compete for a bigger share of the market. Why now? 
One of the biggest reasons is that the overall pizza market is growing rapidly, says Darren Tristano, senior vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm covering the restaurant industry. According to Technomic’s latest Pizza Consumer Trend Report, 41 percent of consumers polled say they now eat pizza once a week, up from 26 percent two years ago.
Locally, the pizza scene has long been dominated by independent, stalwart delivery companies like Pagliacci Pizza, founded in 1979, and Zeeks Pizza, founded in 1993, as well as the national delivery and sit-down chains such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut. That said, there have been few choices outside of delivery for years, leaving the market ripe for newcomers.
“It’s just a market that has been underserved for a long time,” says McConnell. “There haven’t been a lot of options. There is some great pizza in Seattle and a lot of mediocre pizza.”
“Pizza has always been a business with a rich tradition of independents,” adds Matt Galvin, co-owner of Pagliacci. “We’re seeing a number of new companies now because a lot of people are trying to come up with the next Chipotle [of pizza]. There’s also been an influx of Italian-style pizza.”
In addition, many of the new entrants, including Seattle restaurant entrepreneurs like Tom Douglas (Serious Pie) and Ethan Stowell (Ballard Pizza Company) offer artisan pizzas with fresh ingredients to capitalize on the local food trend. Many are not head-to-head competitors as they target different markets: Some are neighborhood joints, others look for affluent customers, still others are trying to deliver an authentic Italian experience. The Rock is a sit-down operation while MOD serves the fast-casual segment looking for a quick bite to eat.
But all tout their fresh, sometimes locally sourced, ingredients.
“Seattle is a good food city, one with good palates and an understanding that handmade and fresh ingredients are signs of quality,” says Dan Black, president of Zeeks Pizza. “Seattle is often at the cutting edge of innovation.”
Tristano agrees. “Seattle is a very interesting part of the country where more people care about local sourcing and environmental issues,” he notes, citing fine dining establishments and celebrity chefs such as Tom Douglas as early champions of using fresh, local ingredients.
For these reasons, the Seattle scene has seen a flurry of new activity as many entrepreneurs recognized the opportunity to sell a better pie. In addition to MOD Pizza’s eight locations and Via Tribunali’s six, other pizza companies coming into being with multiple locations in the past few years include:
● Tutta Bella Founded in 2004 by Joe Fugere, Tutta Bella is famous for serving a pie to President Obama in 2012 when he visited Seattle and, more important, for becoming Seattle’s first Vera Pizza Napoletana certified pizzeria. 
● flying squirrel pizza company Open for dinner only, Flying Squirrel was founded in 2008 by Bill Corey, a former Starbucks manager and bassist with the Seattle band Visqueen. Its three neighborhood spots serve New York-style pizzas with mostly organic ingredients.
● palermo pizza & pasta  Open for a decade in Ballard and on Capitol Hill, Palermo recently added a gluten-free crust to its options for only $2 extra, regardless of size. The pizzas still come in four sizes, a departure from the modern menu trend.
● serious pie  Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most successful restaurant entrepreneur, opened his first pizzeria in downtown Seattle in 2006, following it with another in South Lake Union in 2011. Don’t look for Douglas to start a pizza chain. He says he has too many other restaurant ideas to bring to life.
● zaw  Opened in 2008 and now with seven suburban Seattle locations, Zaw offers a bake-at-home pizza topped with the “freshest, organic ingredients sourced from local farmers.” This year, another Zaw will open in Kirkland.
Many of these newer entrants, as well as revered local chains like Pagliacci Pizza and Zeeks Pizza, believe they can do a better job serving their customers by remaining in Seattle.
“We don’t have any aggressive plans to franchise or expand nationally,” says Galvin, who doubled Pagliacci to 24 locations, most of them delivery outlets, after purchasing the company 12 years ago. “We’re very focused on taking care of customers in our own backyard.”
Fugere says Tutta Bella concentrates on delivering quality, not fast growth. “It’s deliberate growth,” he says. “Growth is in our DNA, and it just depends upon whether the team is ready and the real estate is right. When we feel we’re ready, we’re going to add the next restaurant.” In 2013, the Seattle company will most likely open two new pizzerias in Western Washington, Fugere says.
Zeeks Pizza, with six corporate units, started franchising in 2006 and now has four local franchise locations. Black says the company also plans to join the jump to national markets, but not just yet. Corporate will open a seventh Seattle location in 2013, and a franchise will open in Bothell.
As Seattle’s home-grown pizza entrepreneurs try to compete nationally, they will come up against some established competitors. 
“Italian food and pizza is a very saturated market with full and limited service already in competition for the stomach,” Tristano says. As the Seattle players go outside the area, he notes, they will have to deal with localized flavor profiles, independent Italian restaurant and pizza operators, and a host of companies trying to capitalize on the pizza craze.
Seattle’s pizzapreneurs can only hope that new customers are as eager for their pizzas as they have been for Starbucks coffee. 

Standing in long lines at the Chipotle in Bellevue, they recognized other parents trying to feed their children quickly. A chance introduction a little while later to a friend looking to grow his pizza-by-the-slice business in California sparked an idea: Why not create a place that cranked out great pizzas quickly—real quickly?The result is MOD Pizza, which sells a made-on-demand, 11-inch, thin-crust pizza in 10 varieties—or build your own—for $6.88. The pies are served in two to three minutes, thanks to huge ovens that operate at 800 degrees. The Svensons opened the first MOD in late 2008, at One Union Square in downtown Seattle, to great success. Four and a half years later, MOD has eight locations—four in Seattle and four in the suburbs—and the Svensons are getting ready to take the company national. They plan to double the number of locations in 2013, says Scott Svenson, who recently stepped into day-to-day operations as CEO.MOD, which is short for “made on demand,” isn’t the only aspiring Seattle pizza chain operator looking to grab a slice of the $32 billion national market. Don Bellis and Jay Gigandet opened The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits, a rock ’n’ roll themed gourmet pizzeria, in Tacoma in 1995, and quietly began franchising in 2005. In the past two years, they added eight more units, bringing the total to 18. “In 2013, we’ll open another six to eight locations,” says Gigandet, the company’s CFO.A Canadian franchisor alone plans to open 40 Rock units in the next 10 years, and company locations and other franchisees will open restaurants in Texas, Colorado, California, Idaho and Alaska.Also on the move, albeit at a more measured pace, is Caffé Vita founder Michael McConnell, who opened the upscale pizzeria Via Tribunali on Capitol Hill to much fanfare in 2004. With four restaurants in Seattle, McConnell has opened two pizza parlors outside Washington state in the past two years—one in Portland in late 2011 and another on the Lower East Side of Manhattan last year. His 2013 plans for Via Tribunali, which sells authentic, certified Neapolitan-style pizzas, call for a second New York City location and another in Los Angeles.Whether it is about using more local ingredients, turning pizza into fine dining or making it quality fast food, a growing number of Seattle entrepreneurs are ready to compete for a bigger share of the market. Why now? One of the biggest reasons is that the overall pizza market is growing rapidly, says Darren Tristano, senior vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm covering the restaurant industry. According to Technomic’s latest Pizza Consumer Trend Report, 41 percent of consumers polled say they now eat pizza once a week, up from 26 percent two years ago.Locally, the pizza scene has long been dominated by independent, stalwart delivery companies like Pagliacci Pizza, founded in 1979, and Zeeks Pizza, founded in 1993, as well as the national delivery and sit-down chains such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut. That said, there have been few choices outside of delivery for years, leaving the market ripe for newcomers.“It’s just a market that has been underserved for a long time,” says McConnell. “There haven’t been a lot of options. There is some great pizza in Seattle and a lot of mediocre pizza.”“Pizza has always been a business with a rich tradition of independents,” adds Matt Galvin, co-owner of Pagliacci. “We’re seeing a number of new companies now because a lot of people are trying to come up with the next Chipotle [of pizza]. There’s also been an influx of Italian-style pizza.”In addition, many of the new entrants, including Seattle restaurant entrepreneurs like Tom Douglas (Serious Pie) and Ethan Stowell (Ballard Pizza Company) offer artisan pizzas with fresh ingredients to capitalize on the local food trend. Many are not head-to-head competitors as they target different markets: Some are neighborhood joints, others look for affluent customers, still others are trying to deliver an authentic Italian experience. The Rock is a sit-down operation while MOD serves the fast-casual segment looking for a quick bite to eat.But all tout their fresh, sometimes locally sourced, ingredients.“Seattle is a good food city, one with good palates and an understanding that handmade and fresh ingredients are signs of quality,” says Dan Black, president of Zeeks Pizza. “Seattle is often at the cutting edge of innovation.”Tristano agrees. “Seattle is a very interesting part of the country where more people care about local sourcing and environmental issues,” he notes, citing fine dining establishments and celebrity chefs such as Tom Douglas as early champions of using fresh, local ingredients.For these reasons, the Seattle scene has seen a flurry of new activity as many entrepreneurs recognized the opportunity to sell a better pie. In addition to MOD Pizza’s eight locations and Via Tribunali’s six, other pizza companies coming into being with multiple locations in the past few years include:
● Tutta Bella Founded in 2004 by Joe Fugere, Tutta Bella is famous for serving a pie to President Obama in 2012 when he visited Seattle and, more important, for becoming Seattle’s first Vera Pizza Napoletana certified pizzeria. 
● flying squirrel pizza company Open for dinner only, Flying Squirrel was founded in 2008 by Bill Corey, a former Starbucks manager and bassist with the Seattle band Visqueen. Its three neighborhood spots serve New York-style pizzas with mostly organic ingredients.
● palermo pizza & pasta  Open for a decade in Ballard and on Capitol Hill, Palermo recently added a gluten-free crust to its options for only $2 extra, regardless of size. The pizzas still come in four sizes, a departure from the modern menu trend.
● serious pie  Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most successful restaurant entrepreneur, opened his first pizzeria in downtown Seattle in 2006, following it with another in South Lake Union in 2011. Don’t look for Douglas to start a pizza chain. He says he has too many other restaurant ideas to bring to life.
● zaw  Opened in 2008 and now with seven suburban Seattle locations, Zaw offers a bake-at-home pizza topped with the “freshest, organic ingredients sourced from local farmers.” This year, another Zaw will open in Kirkland.
Many of these newer entrants, as well as revered local chains like Pagliacci Pizza and Zeeks Pizza, believe they can do a better job serving their customers by remaining in Seattle.“We don’t have any aggressive plans to franchise or expand nationally,” says Galvin, who doubled Pagliacci to 24 locations, most of them delivery outlets, after purchasing the company 12 years ago. “We’re very focused on taking care of customers in our own backyard.”Fugere says Tutta Bella concentrates on delivering quality, not fast growth. “It’s deliberate growth,” he says. “Growth is in our DNA, and it just depends upon whether the team is ready and the real estate is right. When we feel we’re ready, we’re going to add the next restaurant.” In 2013, the Seattle company will most likely open two new pizzerias in Western Washington, Fugere says.Zeeks Pizza, with six corporate units, started franchising in 2006 and now has four local franchise locations. Black says the company also plans to join the jump to national markets, but not just yet. Corporate will open a seventh Seattle location in 2013, and a franchise will open in Bothell.As Seattle’s home-grown pizza entrepreneurs try to compete nationally, they will come up against some established competitors. “Italian food and pizza is a very saturated market with full and limited service already in competition for the stomach,” Tristano says. As the Seattle players go outside the area, he notes, they will have to deal with localized flavor profiles, independent Italian restaurant and pizza operators, and a host of companies trying to capitalize on the pizza craze.Seattle’s pizzapreneurs can only hope that new customers are as eager for their pizzas as they have been for Starbucks coffee.