Project Pie to launch with aggressive growth plan

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A new fast-casual pizza concept with an aggressive growth plan is launching in Las Vegas later this month, joining a growing crowd of operators who hope to claim the niche.

Project Pie, a concept founded by James Markham — who also helped found the MOD Pizza chain in Seattle and founded Pieology in Fullerton, Calif. — is scheduled to open in late July or early August in the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas strip.

The MGM Grand location will be the first of 20 Project Pie units to open over the next two years, according to Markham. “We’ll have six stores open within the next seven months,” he said.

A second location is scheduled to open later this summer in San Diego, and units are planned for the chain’s home base of Carlsbad, Calif., as well as Boulder, Colo. Markham is also looking for three to five locations in New York City, and Project Pie may go into more MGM-owned properties around the world.

A growing number of chain operators are hoping to claim the title of being the “Chipotle of fast-casual pizza,” including MOD, based in Seattle; Uncle Maddio’s in Atlanta; Top That! Pizza, based in Tulsa, Okla.; and the soon-to-launch Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza, based in Pasadena, Calif.

Markham, however, said he was the first to bring the idea of artisan-style fast-casual pizza to market, using the model of allowing guests to choose their toppings for one price, watching the pizza being prepared in front of them, and seeing their pie cooked in less than three minutes in an 800-degree gas-fired oven.

Markham developed the concept after he built and sold a five-unit pizza chain called Knockout Pizzeria in San Diego, a more traditional New York-style pizza chain. He then moved to China for a few years to open New York Style Pizza in Shanghai. When he returned to the U.S., he said he wanted to develop a new quick-pizza concept in the style of Chipotle Mexican Grill.

That idea drew the interest of Ally and Scott Svenson, founders of the Seattle Coffee Co., who joined with Markham to create MOD — an acronym for Made On Demand — a now five-unit chain in the Pacific Northwest.

The first MOD opened in 2008 and was among the first of its kind. Markham, however, left MOD in 2009 to design another fast-casual pizza concept called Pieology in Fullerton, Calif., which opened in 2011.

Markham recently sold his share in Pieology to a business partner and went on to develop Project Pie. The fledgling chain has attracted the support of a deep-pocketed investor Joel Tucker, who Markham described as an entrepreneur with interests in the restaurant industry.

Project Pie will serve 12-inch pizzas for $7.50. Like Chipotle, the concept uses sustainable ingredients such as hormone-free meat and organic produce where available. Guests can choose from among seven pre-designed pies, or build their own pie.

The crust is thin and slightly more crisp than a traditional Neopolitan style, said Markham. A gluten-free crust option is also available, but it’s not safe for people with celiac disease because of the risk of cross-contamination.

A key differentiator for Project Pie is its 800-degree oven, now used by only a handful of the growing number of fast-casual pizza concepts. Most use an impinger conveyor oven, which Markham believes produces a very different product. “You lose the authenticity,” he said.

The first location will be about 1,800-square feet with seating for about 52. Markham described Project Pie’s design as “vintage industrial.”

Though the first 20 locations will be company owned, Markham said he plans to franchise the brand down the road.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout