The founders of Quiznos and Smashburger will debut a new fast-casual concept this week that aims to redefine the next generation of pizza.
Live Basil Pizza will open Thursday in Denver and offer made-to-order 11-inch pizzas, baked in less than five minutes in a high-temperature brick oven.
Live Basil is a new concept developed by Consumer Capital Partners, a Denver-based private-equity firm lead by Richard and Rick Schaden, the father-son team that also built the Quiznos sandwich chain. Quiznos changed hands in a debt-for-equity swap last year, but Consumer Capital still operates and franchises the 206-unit Smashburger “better-burger” concept.
The new pizza concept was initially rumored to be called Honest Pizza, but there was a last-minute switch, said Rick Schaden, who is developing Live Basil with Consumer Capital managing partner Tom Ryan.
The name Live Basil better represented what Schaden described as a differentiated positioning within the rapidly growing fast-casual pizza niche, with a focus on freshness and quality ingredients — like the basil plucked from live plants as the pizza is assembled in front of guests.
Rather than calling the concept fast-casual pizza, “We call this the fresh pizza segment,” Schaden said in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.
“Fast casual is just the service system, but this is really about fresh pizza that’s made right in front of you,” he said.
Live Basil customers can select from pre-designed classic “favorites” or more modern “signature” pizzas, ranging from $7 to $9. Or they can build their own pies, with up to three toppings for a base price of $8.
The concept will offer a traditional Neapolitan-style crust and a gluten-free option. The dough is hand-stretched into the pan, and pizzas are baked in a high-temperature brick oven with gas heat and a little oak for flavor, Ryan said.
The pizza sauce is made with organic Italian San Marzano tomatoes, which are not pre-cooked, “so it has a fresh, bright flavor to it,” Ryan added.
Other ingredients — from imported Greek olives to kurobuta ham — are a cut above, he said, noting that, “Everything is either organic, all-natural or authentic.”
In addition to salads and a drink lineup that includes Boylan fountain beverages, teas, beer and wine, Live Basil will offer smoothies made with Häagen-Dazs sorbets and fresh fruit. Smashburger also uses Häagen-Dazs ice cream for its milkshakes.
Live Basil has a footprint of about 2,000 square feet. Consumer Capital has a plan for selecting real estate, but Schaden declined to reveal details on the strategy.
Pizza 'ready for a sea change'
Live Basil is on the edge of a “sea change” within the $60 billion pizza space, Ryan said.
“We think there’s a change going on in general. We think fast casual represents the way people want to eat, and we think pizza is ready for a sea change in that direction,” Ryan said.
Live Basil’s pizza is “more relevant in that it’s great flavored, great tasting, but modern and lighter in nature,” he said. “We want it to be fulfilling, rather than really filling.”
While many emerging fast-casual pizza players have focused on customization, Schaden predicts less than half of Live Basil customers will choose to build their own pies.
“When we do consumer research, people really do want that ability (to build their own). They want to be empowered. But there are a lot of folks that also want something designed for them,” he said. “They want the convenience and ease of choosing something theput together. That’s a very powerful mix.”
Live Basil joins a growing number of fast-casual pizza concepts that are growing rapidly, hoping to become the first such national chain, although the largest among them — Your Pie, based in Athens, Ga. — has only 17 locations.
Others include Seattle-based MOD Pizza; Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza; Los Angeles-based PizzaRev and 800 Degrees; Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s; San Diego-based Project Pie; and The Colony, Texas-based Pie Five.
Ryan said the category is still in the early stages of defining itself, but the activity indicates that consumers are asking for a change.
“Some of those chains are really fast casual, but not fresh,” he said. “We want to define the category, not just compete with early upstarts.”
Just as Smashburger was among an early group of fast-casual better burger concepts to attempt national chain status when it launched in 2006, he said, “We are defining what the future of pizza will be for the next generation from a product, freshness, service and value point of view.”
After the first location debuts this week, Consumer Capital will open “a couple more” Live Basil units in Denver this year, with another scheduled to open on the West Coast, Schaden said.
“We want to make sure the first 10 on the ground are right,” Schaden said. “This is all about the product and bringing something new to the market. The growth will come as it comes.”
Unlike its competitors, the company has no immediate plans to franchise Live Basil, Schaden said.
Still, “We never say never,” Ryan added.
Roughly half of Smashburger units are franchised, though the company is also opening corporate locations. Quiznos, on the other hand, is mostly franchised and has struggled in recent years. Both before and after the change in ownership, disgruntled Quiznos franchise operators filed multiple lawsuits, including some targeting the Schadens.
If anything, Live Basil might consider a joint-venture partnership, Schaden said.
“We may do a joint venture or something of that nature, but we’re not in need of capital and we’re not in need of operators,” he said. “We really like having the corporate controls. This is a very special pizza, and we want to make sure it stays that way. When you have to keep it within a very narrow set of specs, corporate stores are much better for that.”
Consumer Capital tested another Italian concept called Tossa in Boulder, Colo., which closed in December after about a year. Schaden described that concept as more like a “miniature Olive Garden,” with fast-casual service at lunch and full service at dinner.
“The food and the acceptance was very good, and the economics were okay, but they weren’t great,” Schaden said. Some recipes from Tossa have passed on to Live Basil, he noted.
This article has been revised to reflect the following update:
May 20, 2013 This article has been updated with more background information on Quiznos.