Persona Neapolitan Pizzeria, a one-unit, fast-casual pizza concept based in Santa Barbara, Calif., has launched a national franchise program with the goal of opening 10 units before the end of this year and reaching 250 locations within the next five years.

Founded in Santa Barbara in February 2013, Persona joins an increasingly crowded niche of pizza players offering signature and build-your-own individual pies cooked to order in minutes.

Persona was created by Joseph Baumel, a former real estate professional in South Florida who moved to California during the recession to attend the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and become a chef.

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At the 2012 Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Baumel met Glenn Cybulski, now Persona’s co-founder and chief operating officer, who had trained as a pizzaiolo in Italy. The two designed a brand that aims for the emphasis on quality, similar to players like 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria, a now four-unit concept founded by chef Anthony Carron, which recently opened at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

Last year, 800 Degrees won a $7 million injection of equity financing to accelerate growth, and five more locations have been announced, mostly in Southern California. Unlike most of the fast-casual pizza players, however, 800 Degrees has no plans to franchise. Cybulski said Persona hopes to fill that role as a franchise brand with a similar emphasis on a more authentic Neapolitan style of pizza.

The dough for the 12-inch pies is made in house, for example, using imported 00 flour and Italian-made mixers that mimic kneading by hand.

“It makes a huge difference in how the dough is hydrated,” said Cybulski.

The pizzas are baked in Italian Marra Forni gas-assisted wood ovens that cook the pizzas in about 90 seconds. All sauces, dressings and ingredients, like grilled chicken and meatballs, are made in house.

Prices start at $6.95 for a basic margarita pie, and guests can add toppings for $1 each. Specialty pizzas start at $11.

The menu includes salads and gelato, and the restaurant features a Coke Freestyle machine for customized sodas. Local beer and wine is also available.

The concept has filed franchise documents to operate nationwide. Cybulski said the brand will work well near Chipotle Mexican Grill or Apple store locations, and the company will look for high-traffic positions near college campuses.

The typical footprint will be between 2,500-3,000 square feet for A-model locations, or 1,500-1,800-square feet for B-model sites.

Unlike many franchise operators today, Persona is willing to work with single-unit franchisees. The company estimates the initial investment for a unit will be between $275,000 and $450,000.

Cybulski declined to reveal sales for the first restaurant, which has been open only about 14 months.

“We opened one corporate store with the intention of going immediately to franchise because we knew this would run fast,” he said.

The fast-casual pizza niche may be crowded, noted Cybulski, but customers will taste the difference.

“Our differentiation is really in quality, while the price point stays the same,” he said. “There’s a lot of real estate out there and we think if we go head-to-head with the other brands out there, we will win.”

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