The Surprising Fast Food Chain That Inspired Blaze Pizza - Exclusive

With options ranging from the Green Stripe, with its savory drizzle of pesto and fluffy arugula topping, to the decadent BBQ Chkn, which has mozzarella and gorgonzola, perhaps you've wondered what inspired the creation of Blaze, the pizza restaurant with the fastest growth in U.S. history (via Forbes). Was it a tiny bistro in Naples, visited on a vacation, where the pies were so fragrant and fresh that you found yourself closing your eyes to enjoy each bite? Or a trendy NYC pop-up where people line up for hours for a slice?

Nah. It was Chipotle.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Blaze founders Rick and Elise Wetzel explained how the inception for their nine-year-old pizza chain, which now has 300 locations and counts NBA legend LeBron James among its investors, was not another pizza restaurant, but a quick lunch at the epic fast-casual Tex-Mex joint known for its burritos, bowls, and guacamole. "It was lunchtime," Elize Wetzel recalled. "We had a meeting and we wanted to stop for a quick bite. We wanted good pizza. We didn't want a reheated slice somewhere, something that had been on a heating lamp, and so we couldn't figure that out. You couldn't get fast pizza for lunch and we ended up at a Chipotle."

Fortunately for the time-strapped couple, their lunches were ready in a jiffy. "We just looked at each other and said, 'There's no reason why this couldn't happen. This is a perfect format for pizza. And can you believe it doesn't exist?'" she added.

Chipotle's fast, customizable entrees inspired Blaze Pizza

Elise Wetzel admitted that at first, the idea of opening yet another pizza chain seemed unwise. "There's 75,000 pizza restaurants in the U.S. It's a very saturated category so it seems like it would be hard to enter, but we threaded the needle in such a way," she explained. "There was no good artisanal pizza, fast for lunch. So that was really the inspiration."

This concept initially was met with some resistance, added Rick Wetzel. "And all of our friends said, 'Are you crazy? You're going to enter the pizza category?' We're like, 'No, no, no. We know exactly what we're doing.'" Their previous experience opening Wetzel's Pretzels had taught them a thing or two about making good dough, Rick said. "And we knew how to expand, and we knew how to market a brand and all those wonderful things," he explained. "And we thought, let's just apply this to the pizza category, except let's take it up a notch."

Elise pointed out that similar to Chipotle, "What we do is we take excellent, artisanal food... we make it affordable. We make it fast." These were attributes they'd only been able to find at a Tex-Mex joint, on a day they were craving pizza. "Those were the things that we couldn't get at that lunch. And we want to make that environment just as good as you would get at a nice restaurant, but just make it more accessible," she explained.