The fast-casual pizza niche is about to get a bit more crowded with the launch of three concepts that are upping the ante with the addition of craft beer or a full bar.

Over the past two years, a growing number of fast-casual chain concepts have sprouted up around the country featuring a customized, build-your-own pizza model that produces artisan-style pies in less than five minutes.

Chains with aggressive growth plans include MOD Pizza; Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza; Pie Five Pizza; PizzaRev; Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint; Your Pie and Live Basil Pizza, just to name a few.

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More recent entrants in the race include Social Life Pizza, which debuted in San Diego last week; Custom Fuel Pizza, which opened in Washington, D.C., in August; and Garage Brewing Co. & Pizzeria, which is scheduled to open in Temecula, Calif., on Oct. 15.

In a recent report, market-research firm Technomic Inc. said the new cluster of fast-casual pizza players tend to court lunch customers more than traditional pizza brands, as well as those looking for fresh or better-for-you products.

These new players, however, are positioned to also capture a strong dinner business with the enhanced bar component, which also boosts the average check.

Here’s a look at three of the latest players in the fast-casual pizza game.

Social Life Pizza

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Joe DeSantis has long been in the pizza business as founder of the LA Italian Kitchen concept, an eight-unit pizza-by-the-slice concept in food courts and casinos.

But the value equation for pizza by the slice doesn’t work well in a world of cheap chicken wings and dollar-menu burgers, DeSantis said. So he developed Social Life Pizza, a concept that taps his strong ties with suppliers of Italian ingredients and raises the bar a bit in terms of customer experience.

“I liked the idea of being able to produce a product that’s high quality and quick,” said DeSantis, Social Life’s chief executive.

Social Life offers Neapolitan-style, 12-inch pizzas with guests building their pie as they walk the service line, or choosing among house specialties. The crust is crispy with “the right chew,” said DeSantis, using made-from-scratch dough that has been fermented and hand stretched. Pizzas are baked in a domed Forno oven at high temperatures.

Pizzas range in price from $5.25 for a “simple tomato pie,” to about $7.50 for a custom-built pizza with unlimited toppings. A dessert “cannoli pizza” is topped with a sweet ricotta cream with chocolate chips and drizzled with chocolate sauce and maraschino cherries.

Unlike most fast-casual pizza concepts, however, Social Life offers ten craft beer options on tap featuring a rotating array of local microbreweries, along with a selection of California wines.

“We get the best of both worlds. During the day we sell a ton of lemonade, but at dinner people drink beer and wine. So far we’re seeing our beer sales exceed soda,” said DeSantis. “I’d love to partner with some local breweries.”

The 2,500-square-foot restaurant is in a strip center end cap with an outdoor patio. A second location is scheduled to open at The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in early 2014.

DeSantis said he’s working on a franchise model, though he plans to continue opening company-owned stores. Social Life Pizza is based in Tustin, Calif.

The fast-casual pizza world is getting increasingly crowded, he acknowledged. “There are so many thousands of brands of chains and franchises, but really there’s a lot of room for growth in our industry,” said DeSantis. “There will always be customers that want to try something different.”

Custom Fuel Pizza

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To Zach Current, sometimes it’s impossible to ignore the need for change.

Current founded Fuel Pizza in Charlotte, N.C., in 1998. Fuel Pizza is a traditional pizza-by-the-slice concept with a 1930s gas-station design that also offers chicken wings along with frozen bar drinks, beer and wine. In partnership with New York-based multi-concept operator The Restaurant Group, Fuel has grown to 10 units in North Carolina and the Washington, D.C., area.

More recently, however, new pizza oven technologies have tempted Current down a new path. The company developed a variation on the Fuel theme, allowing guests to build their own individual pies, which are baked in about two minutes in a Turbo Chef oven, using a combination of high heat and forced air.

The new concept, called Custom Fuel Pizza, opened in Washington, D.C., in August. The pizzas are oval shaped, roughly 13-by-7-inches, and feature the choice of white, wheat or gluten-free crust. Prices range from $6.57 to $7.97.

“We really feel like this is the pizza model of the future,” said Jeremy Wladis, president of The Restaurant Group and a partner in Custom Fuel.

Salads are also an important part of the menu, with signature offerings as well as build-your-own options. “It’s really to address the veto vote,” said Wladis, “but we could see salads becoming about one-third of sales.”

At Custom Fuel, Current also kept the frozen margaritas and rum punches from the mother concept on the menu, along with beer and wine.

The first location is only about 1,500-square feet, but future units will likely range up to 2,400-square-feet, Current said.

A second location is under construction in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, and two more are planned for the Washington, D.C., area before the end of next year.

Current said he’s planning to launch a franchising program in three to six months, but the company will continue to build out the Carolinas, New York and Washington, D.C.

The fast-casual pizza space is crowded, but less so on the East Coast, said Current. “It’s going to be a battle over who gets the good real estate,” he said.

Garage Brewing Co. & Pizzeria

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About halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, Lou Kashmere owns a strip center in Temecula, Calif., that is home to a high-volume Shell station. The strip center had a space that once housed an old tire shop.

Wanting to use the space more creatively, Kashmere decided to convert the garage into a brewery. And what goes better with beer than pizza?

Tapping two hot trends, Kashmere — along with his wife and children — created the Garage Brewing Co. & Pizzeria, a brewhouse producing about 310 gallons at a time, as well as made-from-scratch pizzas in a fast-casual setting.

Scheduled to open Oct. 15, Garage Brewing will have a beer-tasting room featuring 28 beers on tap, including the eight house brews. In the dining room, guests can build their own pizzas, which are baked to order in a 900-degree Wood Stone oven.

“People love pizza. People love beer,” said Kashmere. “If I can marry the two together and get a ‘wow,’ it’ll be successful.”

Garage Brewing’s 12-inch pizzas range from $5 for a simple cheese pie to $8 for a custom-built pie with unlimited toppings. Signature pizzas are typically around $6.50.

An added bonus: The Shell station sells growlers of the concept’s beer. Empty growlers are taken back and recycled.

“So you can stop in and get gas, pick up a half-gallon of beer and a pizza,” Kashmere said.

Though it began as a concept to fit the space, Kashmere is working on a second location, which the family hopes to open next year.

Given the popularity of both craft beers and fast-casual pizza, there is room to grow the brand, especially in smaller-town markets like Temecula, he said. “I don’t see chains like Blaze coming to Temecula anytime soon.”

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