A pizza chain created by a former Starbucks exec should worry Pizza Hut and Domino’s

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

About one in eight Americans eats pizza on any given day. And an increasing number of them are ditching legacy brands like Domino’s and Pizza Hut for innovative fast-casual chains.

MOD Pizza is one of them. Founded by a former Starbucks executive in 2008, the chain more than doubled in size over the past year. In 2015, Technomic named MOD the fastest growing chain in the restaurant business,with its sales increasing a whopping 220% during the year.

Like competitors Blaze Pizza and Pieology, MOD prepares and bakes personal pizzas on a Chipotle-like assembly line, where customers can pick from dozens of toppings.

We recently visited a MOD location in Daly City, California, to see if it’s worth the hype.

 

Innovation in pizza delivery is in no short supply. These days, you can order a pizza by speaking to an Amazon Echo, texting a pizza emoji, or poking whatever this thing is.

Source: Business Insider

But in 2007, restaurant entrepreneur Scott Svenson saw “a shocking lack of innovation” in pizza consumed outside of the home. He and his wife, Ally, saw a business opportunity.

At the time, Svenson was working as president of Starbucks’ European division. He and Ally previously started a Seattle coffee company that was acquired by the coffee giant in 1998.

Svenson decided to take a risk and leave Starbucks to pursue his entrepreneurial itch.

The couple founded MOD Pizza a year later out of Seattle. Today, the fast-casual chain has 227 locations across the US and the UK and expects to grow by another 60 stores in 2017.

The chain draws inspiration from fast-casual king Chipotle with its assembly line. Customers can choose from a selection of toppings in front of them.

There are also nine “classics” or signature pizzas on the menu, from a classic cheese to the Dillon James, which features mozzarella, asiago, chopped basil, garlic, and sliced tomatoes.

Staff, called “the MOD squad,” slice and prep ingredients daily to ensure freshness.

The dough, a proprietary recipe, gets pressed in a machine so it’s as thin as a tortilla.

An employee takes an order, sauces and “cheeses” the pie, and sends it down the line.

For about $8, customers can order all the toppings they want on an 11-inch custom pizza.

The prices vary slightly across the country.

Customers with bigger appetites can order a “Mega” pizza, which stacks any two pizza crusts on top of each other. It costs $3 extra and is very Instagram-worthy.

Then the pizza goes into a gas-fire oven for about 90 seconds. The cook spins the pie with a palette to ensure it cooks evenly, and removes it when the crust starts to burn.

A pizza order to-go is transferred to mini delivery box with a removable lid. It improves the experience of eating out of the box because there’s no cardboard flap hanging off your lap.

I started with the Mad Dog, a meat-lover’s dream pie topped with mozzarella, pepperoni, mild sausage, and ground beef. I finished off my first slice without blinking. The mushrooms tasted fresh from the market, while the sausage packed heat.

The Tristan, which features mozzarella, asiago, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and pesto, was understated and delicious. By now, however, I realized the crust is rather tough at the center because of its thinness. It resembled matzah more closely than pizza dough.

But the cheese was cooked to perfection. Stringy, gooey mozzarella hung from the sides.

The Crosby, a seasonal pizza topped with mild sausage, roasted asparagus, and a balsamic fig glaze, became an instant favorite. It was sophisticated.

I’m not a barbecue-pizza lover, so the Caspian did not appeal to me. It has a savory mix of mozzarella, gorgonzola, barbecue chicken, barbecue sauce, and sliced red onions.

I would eat at MOD again — if not for the affordable, crave-worthy pizza, then to support the company’s people-first mission. What sets MOD apart from its competition is its culture and focus on employees. Svenson said the company puts its team before even customers.

“Our people are at the core of everything we do,” Svenson said. The company hires people from all walks of life, regardless of their criminal history, experience, or disability.

Most of the employees I met in Daly City were local community college students. It was a first job for some. MOD pays on average 25% above the local, federal, and state minimum wage.

Svenson sees MOD “as a bridge into where they [employees] want to be in life.” It also happens to be a good place to grab a pizza.