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fast-casual concept fires up franchise push to feed growing demand for upscale pies

RedBrick Pizza: fast-casual concept fires up franchise push to feed growing demand for upscale pies

Carol Tice

If you phone RedBrick Pizza’s Palmdale, Calif., headquarters and press seven, you can hear the sizzling sound of one of the company’s fire-roasted, thin-crust pies cooking in a specially designed 1,000-degree oven.

Sizzling also may be the word to describe the eight-year-old RedBrick Pizza’s recent growth surge. The company shot from four stores to 26 in 2004 and ended 2005 with nearly 50 units. Co-owner Jim Minidis says he has commitments for nearly 100 additional franchised stores and expects to expand into Oregon later this year. Currently, there are 18 master developers and 48 franchisees with open stores.

A longtime pizza industry executive, Minidis has big plans for RedBrick, which he envisions growing into a major international chain and even challenging the longtime dominance of some of the major pizza players. His theory: With baby boomers getting older, tastes are getting more sophisticated, and demand for a high-quality pizza will grow.

In addition to targeting more sophisticated tastes with RedBrick’s variety of thin-crust pies–which include such choices as roasted chicken or prosciutto, mushroom and arugula–the pies can be prepared in three to six minutes in the high-heat ovens.

At the same time, with Americans increasingly watching their weight, RedBrick’s menu is designed to accommodate diners looking for more of a balanced meal. Besides pizzas, the concept offers a half-dozen salads and an array of fire-roasted sandwiches dubbed Fhazanis, which are made with pizza dough and a choice of fillings, such as barbecue chicken.

Dessert is house-made gelato, which has fewer calories than ice cream. Pizza toppings are all freshly made. Specially formulated dough designed to work with the oven’s searing heat is mixed on site at each restaurant.

New-product development is a focus at RedBrick, and Minidis says the company continues to investigate the creation of new food items, such as the Fhazanis, a company-coined moniker for a “fire-roasted gourmet sandwich.”

Florida RedBrick master developer Paul Chong, co-owner of RBP of Florida LLC, says a typical per-person lunch check is $10, while a family of four can eat dinner for about $30.

RedBrick defies the conventional pizza-chain wisdom that fast delivery is key. Most RedBrick stores don’t deliver on the theory that their pies are meant to be savored as soon as they come out of the oven, management says.

The 1,600-square-foot cafes are decorated in red, yellow and white and focus on serving sit-down diners. The staff wears black aprons and berets adorned with the company’s logo, the RedBrick name in white surrounded by red bricks.

It’s typically only a six-minute wait from order time until a hot pizza is delivered to the table, making RedBrick a viable lunch option for busy workers. While diners wait, they can entertain themselves with individually controlled, cable-equipped TV screens, which have been a big hit with families with young children, who make up much of the dinner crowd.

Michigan-based pizza industry consultant Dave Ostrander, who operated a pizzeria for 25 years, says Minidis is on the right track. He says demand for a more upscale type of pizza is growing. On the business end, he adds, franchisees are looking for a concept that will allow them a way out of the price wars that plague much of the category.

“There is a definite resurgence in gourmet pizza,” he says. “Lots of owners are tired of making hundreds of bargain pizzas and not having any net [income].”

Minidis says his concept has been popular with franchisees in part because average-opening costs are approximately $275,000, which is considered relatively inexpensive for a sit-down restaurant. Other sit-down pizza franchises have build-out costs that can top $400,000, he notes.

Franchisees pay a $25,000 franchise fee and need a minimum net worth of $300,000 with at least $80,000 in liquid assets and a good credit rating. RedBrick Pizza takes a 6-percent royalty on sales and charges a 2-percent advertising fee.

Franchisee Mo Zahoui was attracted to the chain after eating at the RedBrick in Temecula, Calif. Zahoui, who worked in his family’s California restaurants, opened his RedBrick in Gilbert, Ariz., in June 2005.

While RedBrick doesn’t release systemwide or average unit sales, Zahoui says his sales have exceeded his expectations. Zahoui’s research showed a typical low-price pizza operator generates sales of between $12,000 and $13,000 per week, while he averages between $16,000 and $17,000 per week in his store’s first year. That would translate to an annual volume of about $850,000.

Located in the food court of an outdoor shopping mall near Phoenix, Zahoui’s RedBrick outlet has not had to do much marketing to attract customers. Aside from participating in the local Welcome Wagon marketing program for newcomers to the area, Zahoui says word of mouth has been enough.

Zahoui also acknowledges that he picked a competitive neighborhood to try to stand out as an upscale pizza purveyor. His location is not far from Pizzeria Bianco, a popular independent pizza haven known for its long waits. He also competes with growing gourmet-delivery chain Garlic Jim’s Famous Gourmet Pizza of Everett, Wash., and sit-down concept New York Pizza Dept.

The quick turnaround at RedBrick is attractive to some of Bianco’s customers, Zahoui reports. “Some of Pizzeria Bianco’s customers tell us our pizza is really great,” he says. “They come back here.”

While RedBrick’s pizza quality isn’t in the same category as Pizzeria Bianco’s, it ranks above a typical chain pizza, says Rob Balon, an Austin, Texas-based radio and TV food critic. He says he prefers another local concept, Brick Oven Pizza, for gourmet thin crust pizza, but he finds RedBrick a tasty option.

“I think for the concept, they do a pretty decent job,” he says.

Man-on-the-street reviews posted online have been generally positive. “They have the best pizza since I left New York, and my wife just raved about the salads,” Bill Hall wrote of a visit to a RedBrick in northern California.

One Pasadena diner, identified only as Christine, wrote in an online city guide: “Who says kid-friendly and gourmet are mutually exclusive! RedBrick serves up gourmet pizza, gelato and salads at family-friendly prices. The service is quick, friendly and the kiddies really love the DirecTV at every booth.”

Others were a bit put off by the restaurant’s decor, but were won over by the pies. On we8there, a website for online reviews, Carma Bekebrede-Zarosinski writes: “We almost turned around and left after entering because the atmosphere isn’t the greatest. It’s very ‘fast foodish.'”

But then she adds: “The food is absolutely wonderful! Really excellent.”

RedBrick was born out of the dissatisfaction that Minidis and his wife, coowner Lynn Minidis, felt about the traditional chain-pizza world. Both longtime Little Caesar’s franchisees, they were convinced there had to be a better model than standing around for 15 or 20 minutes while a carryout pizza was being prepared.

The pair initially converted several Little Caesar’s stores into RedBricks before deciding the concept would be exclusively focused on sit-down dining. They closed those initial stores, and the first RedBrick in the current format opened in Culver City, Calif., in May 2002.

The couple has worked together in pizza eateries for close to 25 years, Lynn Minidis notes. They address operations issues jointly, she says. Because she has a financial background, Lynn handles accounting and human resources issues, while Jim focuses on research and development, marketing, store construction and real estate.

To speed its growth, the company is using the master developer system. RBP’s Chong says he and partner Dan Dumont got involved with RedBrick after a friend of Dumont’s ate at one of the restaurants. Chong and Dumont, both former financial services employees at major corporations, had been looking for a business to go into together.

They liked RedBrick so much that they staked out the entire state of Florida for their territory, the largest in the company. RBP’s plan is to open more than 300 units across the state over the next 10 years.

After extensive market research of Florida’s potential for RedBrick restaurants, they opened their first unit in Orlando in February.

“We did a lot of research in terms of pizza,” Chong says, “and there really is no fast-casual gourmet pizza down here, other than a few California Pizza Kitchens. And this is the right niche–fast-casual is the niche that’s growing.”

The store will serve as the flagship for RBP and has a meeting room to be used for training. A second company-owned store is planned for later this year in Kissimmee, south of Orlando. Four franchised stores have been sold, Chong reports, and RBP plans to operate between 20 and 25 company stores.

REDBRICK PIZZA

Owners: Jim and Lynn Minidis

Headquarters: Palmdale, Calif.

Number of units: 53

Average unit volume: $850,000 (Nation’s Restaurant News estimate)

States where located: Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas

Type of concept: fast-casual gourmet pizza

Average check: lunch, $10 per person; dinner, $30 for family of tour

COPYRIGHT 2006 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group