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It’s fast. It’s casual. It’s … PIZZA?

When a moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

Pizza restaurants are cropping up in fast casual dining. With fresh ingredients and custom options on the rise, the way we prefer our pie is evolving.

Pizza restaurants are cropping up in fast casual dining. With fresh ingredients and custom options on the rise, the way we prefer our pie is evolving.

When Dean Martin first recorded his signature song over half a century ago, he wasn’t crooning about Domino’s or Papa John’s. But the song does reflect Americans’ continuing love affair with pizza. In fact, Pizza Magazine reports we spent $38.5 billion on pizza in 2014 alone.

That’s a lot of amore.

While nearly 60 percent of that money went to major chains, the rest went to independents and newcomers. Among those are a number of fast casual concepts, which are now popping up so fast they are themselves becoming chains.

Can a staple like pizza find its way in the world of fast casual dining?

Don’t mess with tradition

Pizza made its way to the United States with Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. Although it has morphed in form and flavor since then, it quickly became – and remains – an American favorite.

Traditionally, families ordered their pizzas at local full-service pizzerias, complete with wine, table linens and cloth napkins. But while there are still plenty of full-service pizzerias today, two other trends rule the industry.

In the early 1960’s, DomiNick’s Pizza (which would later become Domino’s Pizza) used home delivery to build their cash flow until their sit-down business could stand on its own. It wasn’t meant to be the primary means of business, but now, delivery accounts for almost 10 percent of those billions.

A smaller niche is the sit-down pizza buffet. Serving a different customer, buffets make a quick, affordable meal for budget-minded diners who need to get out of the kitchen.

A change of heart

But now things are changing…

With the rise of fast casual,

As handy as delivery is, sometimes we don’t want food because it’s fast or cheap – we want something fresh and custom. More and more, people are venturing out for more than just a quick bite – they want an experience.

One of the first fast casual pizzeria concepts was Blaze Pizza. Its founders got the idea for the restaurant’s assembly line format while in line at a local Chipotle. Chipotle lets guests choose their own fresh ingredients and then creates the goodness right before their eyes – why couldn’t it work for pizza?

It did.

Customers like fresh. They like custom. They like interaction.

Serving up the love fast and fresh – without the wheels

That was in 2012. Blaze now has more than 50 franchises spread across the country.

And they’re not alone.

As the trend rushes ahead, newcomers seem to enter the race every week: Fired Pies, MidiCi Neopolitan Pizza, Pie Five Pizza, just to name a few. And some are already grown up – MOD Pizza and Pieology, for example, will both pass 100 units in 2015.

What makes them uniquely fast casual?

Most restaurants center around the concept of an individual-sized, build-your-own pizza, where customers can choose from a smorgasbord of fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. Many have special pizza ovens – reaching 900 degrees – to toast your pie to perfection in only three minutes. Some have counter pickup, while others use table location technology to whisk your custom-crafted pizza right to your table, piping hot, in minutes.

Now that puts the “fast” in fast casual.

Another trend that has cropped up blends elements of both quick service and fast casual. Pizza Ranch, for example, has a unique “Buffet Your Way” concept. It combines a buffet line with custom orders, using Table Tracker technology to guide food runners right to the guest’s table – the best of both worlds.

What do you want on your next pie?

Do fast casual pizzerias threaten the traditional sit-down and delivery businesses? Perhaps not. Full service, buffets and delivery all have different target audiences. But FCPs do give us a new way to indulge our love of sauce and cheese.

With no end in sight to our love affair with pizza, fast casual pizzerias are giving us more ways to enjoy it.

And that’s a fresh amore.

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