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Banick and his partner Bruce Thomson project two to five franchise openings in 2013 and between 10 and 15 units in 2014.

“We’ve only been advertising the franchise program for a few weeks, but the response has been fantastic,” Banick said. “Ideally, the first couple would open in Minneapolis, so we can make sure they’re off to great starts and can be successful and profitable. … With the right franchisees we can expand beyond the Midwest.”

Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. recently endorsed Banick’s and other fast-casual pizza operators’ enthusiastic outlook for the segment by calling the made-to-order pizza niche “the next hot concept” in its recent “Concepts 2020” report.

Live Basil Pizza

“Made-to-order pizza can be the next big growth niche because its fresh, gourmet positioning provides a strong platform for popular health and wellness concepts,” executive vice president Darren Tristano said in a statement. “The ‘better’ trend seen in ‘better burgers’ will also drive ‘better sandwich’ and ‘better pizza’ concepts. Not only are made-to-order pizza concepts delivering better quality and fresher ingredients, consumers are able to create their own pizzas that are ready within minutes, a proven recipe for success within the fast-casual space.”

Tom Ryan, managing partner and chief concept officer of Denver-based Consumer Capital Partners and founder of Live Basil Pizza, said the nascent fast-casual pizza category has enough room for several brands to grow, and that “it’s not going to be a monopoly.”

“These brands are combining Americans’ second-favorite food with the fast-casual mode of dining,” Ryan said. “There’s room for a handful of them over time to take on a national presence. The ones who’ve read the market the right way and anticipate where it’s going will be the lasting brands. It’s not that different from how burgers looked in 2007.”

Ryan, who also founded the Smashburger better-burger concept, sees the large legacy pizza chains as his competition, not necessarily other fast-casual upstarts like Solos, PizzaRev or Pie Five.

“This is such a huge category, and the target is not to beat each other so much as it’s to change the pizza category,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to be a fast-pizza company; we’re a fresh-pizza company. We want to serve a pizza you feel good about, with freshness cues everywhere. We like to grow fast because we like to grow fast.”