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Fast-casual pizza brands vie for a slice of the Baltimore market

Several fast-casual pizza restaurants have opened in Baltimore in the past year. These include (pizzas pictured, from left) Babgy Pizza Co., MOD Pizza, &pizza, Pie 360 and Piaza Fresh.
Several fast-casual pizza restaurants have opened in Baltimore in the past year. These include (pizzas pictured, from left) Babgy Pizza Co., MOD Pizza, &pizza, Pie 360 and Piaza Fresh. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

During the 1980s, pizza delivery "in 30 minutes or less" was all the rage. But in the 21st century, pie-lovers no longer need to wait that long.

Thanks to a recent boom in fast-casual pizza spots, Baltimoreans can now get their hands on custom pizzas, topped with items like locally sourced ham and edamame, just minutes after placing their orders.

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In Baltimore and nationally, fast-casual pizza places are "having a moment right now," said Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association. "A few years ago, it was Mexican, then build-your-own bowls … and now it's segueing into pizza."

Pie 360 makes a custom pizza that is ready in minutes. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

In the past year, eight fast-casual pizza operations have opened locations in the Baltimore area with strikingly similar concepts: choose your own toppings, crusts, sauces and more, and get your pie almost instantly.

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"Pizza is probably the last [cuisine] to become a part of the fast-casual space because, traditionally, it takes a longer time to cook," said Michael Hannon, the CFO of Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza in Towson. "With the advancement of ovens, we have been able to deliver a higher-quality fast pizza — we cook ours in under three minutes."

The pizza restaurants follow the industry's highly successful fast-casual recipe, which bridges the gap between fast food and places with table service. Restaurants that fall into the category tend to be inexpensive, with quick service and customizable menu items. They also focus on high-quality ingredients and put an emphasis on attractive, fun spaces.

According to Technomic, a food industry research and consulting company, fast-casual restaurants had $39 billion in sales in 2014 — about 8 percent of all restaurant industry sales — and the category is growing quickly.

Fast-casual restaurants differ from traditional pizzerias in that they focus more on dining in than carrying out, says Stensson. And unlike more sophisticated pizza restaurants, like Hersh's in Riverside or Verde in Canton, fast-casual places do not have wait staff, and pizzas are made in front of the customer.

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With so many fast-casual pizza spots in town, shop owners often look to marketing and branding to set themselves apart from their competition.

"If you compare us to the Blaze Pizzas of the world, it's not hard to find differences," said Michael Lastoria, owner of D.C.-based &pizza, which opened a Federal Hill location in May. "We set out to create a cultural movement around something we loved. It's not just a pizza shop. We wanted to create a brand built with purpose."

At &pizza, that means heavy community involvement, particular language (employees are called the "tribe"), localized shop design and an emphasis on details that convey innovation, like featuring new music in the restaurant.

But the rapid rise of fast-casual pizza poses a problem for restaurateurs who hope to expand.

"The fast pizza concept works well in very dense areas like D.C. and New York," said David Crocetti, owner of Piaza Fresh in McHenry Row. Though he said a handful of strong locations exist in Maryland, he thinks most have already been snapped up.

Scott Svenson, the founder and CEO of Seattle-based MOD Pizza, which has 128 restaurants in the U.S., including Columbia and Sykesville, expects Baltimore to see more growth in the category. Currently, he said, Baltimore is average to slightly below average in terms of the number of fast-casual pizza "concepts" in town.

Svenson said that on a national scale, the flurry of fast-casual pizza openings has started to settle a little over the past year and a half. In years to come, openings might come as fast and furious, but that doesn't mean Baltimore has seen the last of them.

Where to find fast-casual pizza in Baltimore

Fast-casual pizza customers will find more similarities than differences at local spots, but each restaurant has at least a few signature features and quirks. Here's what to expect from the locations that opened within the past year:

&pizza serves oval-shaped pizzas.
&pizza serves oval-shaped pizzas. (Courtesy of &pizza / HANDOUT)

&pizza
1201 S. Charles St., Federal Hill; 443-341-1016; andpizza.com
This D.C.-based company opened its first Charm City outpost in Federal Hill in May. Oval-shaped pizzas are made with one of three organic crusts; the menu also includes five sauces and three cheeses, including vegan mozzarella, plus numerous toppings and finishes. The pizza is only one part of the &pizza experience; the company embraces aims to reflect the neighborhood immediately surrounding the shop.

The McTernan pizza from Bagby Pizza Co.
The McTernan pizza from Bagby Pizza Co. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Bagby Pizza
1809 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville; 443-379-0566; bagbypizza.com
Bagby, part of the local restaurant group that owns dining establishments like Cunningham's and Fleet Street Kitchen, has two Baltimore locations, though only the Pikesville restaurant is technically fast-casual. Look for seasonal salads, pizzas and bowls, plus sophisticated sauce and ingredient combinations, like adobo steak paired with roasted corn, caramelized onion and roasted red pepper.

The Veg Out pizza from Blaze Pizza.
The Veg Out pizza from Blaze Pizza. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Blaze Pizza
600 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor; 410-617-0114; blazepizza.com
With more than 100 franchises across the country and more plans to expand, Blaze is one of the largest fast-casual pizza chains in the U.S. The company's Baltimore location opened downtown in April, featuring crusts available in traditional thin, high-rise and gluten-free, plus four sauce choices.

Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza's margherita pizza.
Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza's margherita pizza. (Courtesy of Lotsa / HANDOUT)

Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza
319 York Road, Towson; 410-705-4400; lotsa.com
Opened in May, Lotsa's menu includes pizzas and salads; the company promotes its high-quality ingredients and lack of "shortcuts" in preparation. Dough is hand-tossed in front of customers when they order, then topped with ingredients, cooked and finished with a drizzle of additional sauce.

The Tristan pizza from MOD Pizza.
The Tristan pizza from MOD Pizza. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

MOD Pizza
The Mall in Columbia, 10000 Town Center Ave., Columbia; 240-865-5607
6400 Ridge Road, Sykesville; 443-609-1136; modpizza.com
MOD's menu includes five sauces and a variety of toppings for customers to mix and match. The restaurant also features a "Top 10" list of signature pizzas, four of which are named after the owners' sons. All MOD pizzas are cooked in an 800-degree, gas-fired oven that finishes the pies in three minutes or less.

The Giardano pizza from Piaza Fresh.
The Giardano pizza from Piaza Fresh. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Piaza Fresh
McHenry Row, 1602 Whetstone Way, South Baltimore; 410-468-0800; piazafresh.com
McHenry Row's Piaza Fresh opened last August, offering brick oven pizza, salad, wings, paninis and calzones. The restaurant's four types of dough are homemade, and pies are cooked in a 900-degree brick oven, ready in about two minutes.

The Ring of Fire pizza from Pie 360.
The Ring of Fire pizza from Pie 360. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Pie 360
The Shops at Canton Crossing, 3731 Boston St., Canton; 443-438-6421; pie360.net
Pie 360 borrows some ingredients, including a trio of popular sauces, from its locally owned sister restaurant chain, Coal Fire. The restaurant's 10-inch, thin crust pizzas are cooked on a stone in a rotating gas oven and topped with freshly prepared ingredients. Build-your-own salads with homemade dressings are also available.

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A 10-inch Athenian on artisan thin crust pizza at Pie Five.
A 10-inch Athenian on artisan thin crust pizza at Pie Five. (Handout)

Pie Five
Multiple area locations: Columbia, Ellicott City, Glen Burnie, Owings Mills and one coming to White Marsh later this year; piefivepizza.com
Pie Five's menu includes a variety of toppings and seven different sauces (experimental diners can even mix them), but the restaurant places a special emphasis on its crust. The company makes recommendations for which of its four crust varieties — crispy "artisan thin," classic Neapolitan, whole grain thin and gluten-free — works best with each of its signature pies, but ultimately it's up to the diner.

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