The oven itself is a 7-foot-wide gas-fired (60,000 BTUs) unit operated at average temperatures of 700 degrees F. to 800 degrees F. It turns out the operations' signature "Fast-fire'd" crispy, thin-crust, slightly blistered Neapolitan-style pizzas in around 120 seconds — so fast that orders are often ready by the time guests make their way through the line and pay.
"Theoretically, these ovens could burn wood but we're using gas," Kent says. "It's got live flame on the two side walls as well as on the back wall and we have an oven underneath the floor with a coal bed that radiates heat as the embers in a wood-fired oven would. So we have fire from all directions and it really performs very much like a wood-fired oven. The baking time is the same — about two minutes — and we get some of the same kind of charring and bubbling of the crust that you'd get in a wood oven, as well."
Each morning, unit managers are responsible for not only checking the quality and freshness of toppings and sauces before opening, but also for firing off a pizza to make sure that the oven has achieved the correct temperature balance. "It has three different temperature zones — the dome heat, the floor heat and the ambient air temperature," Kent explains. "It's about getting that balance right to make sure we get the right texture and the right browning."
More than just the kitchen workhorse, the oven at each Blaze unit is also a centerpiece of the interior design theme. Powder coated in the concept's signature blaze-orange color, it's clearly visible to guests as they walk through the line as well as from every seat in the front of the house. "It's the hero. It's all about the fire," Elise says.
Other elements of the design, created by Ana Henton of Los Angeles-based MASS Architecture & Design, borrow from the fire theme, as well. "We were inspired by foundries," Elise says. "We wanted to create an environment that makes fire the hero but is casually hip. The interior has a number of elements that are very industrial in feel. The floors are concrete, there's a lot of metal and also wood — butcher-block tables and wooden pallets as signature elements. The graphics are designed to inspire personal creativity, with 'There's no wrong way to play' being a key brand message. Overall, the environment creates a feeling that's nicer than a typical fast-food restaurant, a place that's more comfortable and current."
With two units open and exceeding expectations, Elise says there's a lot the team got right from the start. She notes, however, that they'll continuously look inward for ways to enhance the customer experience. Examples currently being considered are expanding the variety of ingredients available for build-your-own pizzas and also looking at ways to move the line more quickly.
As the company heads down the path to more rapid growth through franchising, its basic prototype will remain the same as will the type of real estate it seeks. The Irvine store sits directly across from the UC-Irvine campus, so student traffic is heavy. A solid base of nearby office buildings on the other side helps ensure steady volume when the students are away. "We want our stores to be very central to office workers as well as residential and retail," Elise says. "We get that mix in Irvine and also in Pasadena, where we have great office business during lunch and residential at night and on weekends. We've been really pleased to see that we're getting a very strong dinner business — equal to lunch. At night, we see families coming in or people on dates before a movie. We operate 7 days a week and have 14 day parts that are doing extremely well."
While Blaze Pizza may continue to develop a few corporate stores, the bulk of its growth will come from franchising. The company is in talks with both single- and multiunit operators and requires demonstrated experience and success in the restaurant industry. Its first franchise partner, announced in December, is Sajha LLC, which will develop three stores in the Los Angeles area. The first is expected to open this spring. Sajha's executives have more than 12 years of multi-brand QSR-sector experience operating nationwide franchises, including Cold Stone Creamery and Which Wich Sandwiches.
"With the depth of experience of the founders and our team, I think we have a great infrastructure to start building stores across the country," Elise says. "That's just what we're planning to do and we're very excited to be bringing artisanal pizza to the fast-casual arena."