LeBron James-Backed Blaze Pizza Is Fastest-Growing Restaurant Chain Ever
Headline: LeBron James-Backed Blaze Pizza Is Fastest-Growing Restaurant Chain Ever
Author: Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes Staff
Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2017 10:14:00 -0400
Hours Ago: 6
Blaze Pizza was founded five years ago with two pizza places in Southern California (Irvine and Pasadena). The concept: fast, affordable, high-quality pizza that opened up the pizza category to the lunch crowd long after burgers, salads and burritos became lunchtime staples. The idea of build-your-own pizza ready in three minutes clicked with pizza-loving Americans and franchises popped up the following year.
Blaze opens its 200th restaurant today in Mentor, Ohio. Going from two to 200 franchises in four years is the fastest start in the history of the U.S. food service business, the industry consultancy Technomic confirms.
One of the world’s most famous and marketable athletes has been along for the ride from almost Day 1. Today, LeBron James is all-in on Blaze as an investor, franchisee and paid endorser of the company. “LeBron helps us punch in terms of our brand awareness well above our weight,” says Blaze Pizza CEO Jim Mizes. Witness a recent Harris Poll where Blaze finished second among the best pizza chain brands, behind Papa John’s and ahead of Pizza Hut, which has more than 7,000 locations in the U.S.
James often uses social media to promote Blaze to his 91 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A video of James working the counter of a Blaze Pizza as team member “Ron” last year went viral with more than two million views on YouTube.
James invested in Blaze Pizza in 2012 shortly after the first restaurants were opened by Rick and Elise Wetzel. James’ financial advisor Paul Wachter of Main Street Advisors connected James with Blaze at a time when the company was looking to expand.
James later was interested in being a franchisee in South Florida in 2013 when he played for the Miami Heat. But one of Blaze’s tenants is to only partner with established franchisees who operate other brands as well. Blaze officials connected James with Larry Levy of Levy Family Partners who was also interested in the Florida market. Levy, James and Maverick Carter, James’ business manager, eventually secured rights to Blaze franchises in the South Florida and Chicago markets. They have 17 franchises now (12 in Chicago and five in South Florida) with plans for more.
“Blaze has seen such resounding growth partially as a function of the strategic partnerships they have been able to form during their relatively short time on the chain restaurant scene,” says Kevin Schimpf, research analyst at restaurant consulting firm Technomic. “Whether that’s working with Lebron James or attracting leading franchisees, they have been able to ride these partnerships into massive growth.”
The growth has been astounding. Systemwide sales were $6 million in 2013 and hit $185 million last year. Mizes is targeting $285 million this year and $1.1 billion by 2022.
James doubled-down on Blaze in 2015 when he walked away from previous sponsor McDonald’s and $15 million in guaranteed money over four years as part of an endorsement contract.
James and Carter spoke recently about the split from McDonald’s in an episode of “Kneading Dough,” on Uninterrupted, the digital media company founded by James and Carter. Carter serves as host of the series, which explores the financial issues pro athletes face as told by the athletes themselves.
Carter says he approached James with the idea of putting his marketing might behind Blaze instead of McDonald’s because it fit his lifestyle better and potentially was a better business opportunity. More risk, but more reward. Regarding Blaze, James said, “We get to build this. If it doesn’t become successful, I can only blame myself.”
Mizes has big plans for Blaze. “We want to build the next enduring brand” he says. The company plans to build 100-150 restaurants a year from 2018 and onwards. International expansion is on the horizon with an announcement expected over the next couple of weeks (Blaze is currently in 32 states and Canada).
“We want to set up ourselves up so we can go public with a billion-dollar valuation,” says Mizes with a target date of the next three to five years. It would be a nice score for four-time NBA MVP James, who has talked about becoming a billionaire. He owns an estimated 10% of the company.
James ranked second in Forbes’ recent look at the world’s highest-paid athletes with $86.2 million between June 2016 and June 2017. In addition to his $31.2 million salary, James banked $55 million off the court from endorsements with Nike, Coca-Cola, Intel, Verizon, Kia Motors and Beats, as well as his business interests in Blaze, Uninterrupted and his production company, SpringHill Entertainment.