If there was one restaurant niche that stood out in 2013, it was fast-casual pizza, a space that has attracted a significant number of serious, deep-pocketed players — and it's expected to continue to expand into 2014.

In its first “Fast Casual Pizza Cluster Report,” research firm Technomic Inc. said fast-casual pizza has become defined by concepts that offer both signature and build-your-own individual artisan or Neapolitan-style pizzas, cooked in high-speed ovens to order.

Despite their efforts, large national pizza chains don’t get credit from consumers for food quality and fresh ingredients, the Technomic report said. Newer fast-casual concepts, however, tap growing consumer demand for fresh and better-for-you products. The fast-casual chains tend not to offer delivery or participate in discounting, but they offer chic and comfortable dining rooms that encourage solo diners and lunchtime visitors.

Here are some highlights of fast-casual pizza news from 2013, including new players joining the fray, and what we can expect for 2014:

• In December, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced a partnership with the creators of Pizzeria Locale, a full-service pizza concept in Boulder, Colo. With Chipotle, the partners opened a fast-casual restaurant in Denver last May, with two more planned in 2014. With other concepts already describing themselves as “the Chipotle of pizza,” all will be watching to see how the real McCoy does it.

• The mostly franchised Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, based in Pasadena, Calif., reached 10 units in 2013, mostly in California, but also in Chicago, Michigan and Wisconsin. The chain plans to open 45 more units across the country in 2014.



• In November, multi-concept operator the Cohn Restaurant Group, based in San Diego, opened Zigzag Pizza Pie in Oceanside, Calif. In addition to build-your-own and signature pizzas and salads, Zigzag offers more than 100 bottled and craft beers, 50 wines and nostalgic sodas. No word yet on potential growth.

The co-founders and former chief executives of California Pizza Kitchen said they are developing a fast-casual pizza concept that will debut in Southern California in 2014, and will likely be franchised. The two plan to take advantage of their long-time relationships with mall operators and developers for growth.



• Fourteen-unit MOD Pizza, based in Seattle, moved into California for the first time with two openings in Valencia and Irvine. The chain is mostly known for its presence in Washington and Oregon. In 2014, the company is planning to accelerate growth with 25 to 30 more corporate locations.