Mandy Shaw, CEO at Blaze Pizza
About the Guest
Mandy Shaw is the Chief Executive Officer of fast-growing Blaze Pizza. Prior to stepping into the CEO role, Mandy served as Chief Financial Officer. A seasoned executive, Shaw previously worked in a number of roles at Bloomin’ Brands for over 12 years including CFO of Bloomin’s international division (parent company of Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s, and Carrabba’s) and chief accounting officer during its transition to a private company and through its subsequent IPO.
Mandy Shaw, CEO at Blaze Pizza shares how Blaze Pizza keeps its edge in the highly competitive restaurant landscape.
From fake meat and robot chefs to ghost kitchens and delivery drones. The restaurant industry is rapidly evolving. Welcome to Food Fighters, bringing you interviews with the leading industry trailblazers. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein.
Hi am Zach Goldstein. Welcome back to Food Fighters. I’m here today with Mandy Shaw. Mandy is the Chief Executive Officer of fast-growing Blaze Pizza. Blaze currently operates over 340 restaurants across 41 states and in six countries. Prior to stepping into the CEO role, Mandy served as Chief Financial Officer for Blaze and spent 12 years at Bloomin’ Brands where she held the Chief Information Officer, Chief Accounting Officer and CFO of the International Division roles all the way through Bloomin’s IPO. Welcome to Food Fighters Mandy.
Thanks so much Zach. I appreciate it, I love these podcasts and what you’re doing for the industry. It’s fantastic.
Thank you. So, Blaze is one of the fastest growing best loved pizza chains in the country. And you have some celebrity investors that have raised a lot of attention for the brand. And you were just promoted from Chief Financial Officer to CEO a few months ago. Tell us about what makes Blaze unique and your excitement of stepping into the CEO role.
Wow, that’s a long list. There are a lot of things to be excited about from a Blaze perspective and really it’s continuing the founder’s vision. Rick and Elise Wetzel having come from franchise organizations and entrepreneur background said we need to blow up 30 minute minimum waits for pizza and we need pizza at lunch speed and lunch pricing. So hence borrowing the model of Chipotle and saying, let’s do down the line pizzas in a super hot oven, 700, 800 degrees, 180 seconds, and it’s customizable. So they, they actually honed in on customization before it became the industry buzzword it is today and now we’re just reaping the benefits of that.
Wonderful. And, and that means that every single person that comes through Blaze could have a completely different product coming in their box, whether they consume at the restaurant or they take it, take it off premise. How do you deal with the operational complexity that is complete customization?
Sure. a lot of it for us is a lens of simplicity. We have a ton of innovation that’s coming down the pipe. We just expanded from our original 11 inch pizza to, we now have six crusts. We have a high rise. We introduced Keto for the first time in the history of the pizza business. So we brought pizza back for a lot of people who weren’t going to eat pizza anymore. And when we do that, we put everything through the lens of simplicity. If it’s gonna complicate the business, we either re-engineer it or we say, no, sorry, we can’t do that. It’s, it’s really, it’s tempting in the pizza business to go pursue what the legacy players have, right? Sandwich– we need, we need to do sandwiches, we need to do wings. But that’s also uh, the harbinger of doom for a lot of restaurants that end up saying, Oh, you need to put soft serve ice cream piece of equipment in your restaurant too. If you focus on what is good at your core, and that’s what Blaze does. Fast pizza made exactly how you want it baked by hand by a pizza smith. That’s the key to success.
It’s clearly working as you expand nationwide and internationally as well. And you mentioned that Blaze was at the front end of this customization wave. We’re now seeing it all over the place and part of that is attributable to the innovation that you’ve brought to the industry at Blaze. One of the things that some people talk about in the restaurant industry is just how competitive it is and certainly there are other fast follower, let’s call it, or other brands in your space that are attempting to have a similar value proposition to customers. When you look at that landscape, pizza is an incredibly competitive segment of the restaurant industry. How do you focus on staying unique and staying ahead of those competitors in your space?
That’s a great question. It’s really easy to open a restaurant. People have proven that time and time again. It’s really more difficult to be a lasting provider to guests. Most of that, essentially, those rules have been written many times over in the restaurant business. It’s not new news that speed, quality and great service are the keys to success. Is it getting changed a little bit by disruption of technology, the way that you order the digital process and those sorts of things? Absolutely. Everything has to evolve. But the key of of restaurants is – a complex manufacturing facility with a service component thrown in. And if you focus on the key thing and you keep the guest at the center of everything you do, that’s the key to success. So are there, are there copycats out there? Yes. Do they have all clean ingredients? No. Do they have the same quality where they spend a little bit more on 100% mozzarella cheese like Blaze does? As we’re the only brand that can call it mozzarella as opposed to some of the others, you just have to call it cheese because it’s a blend. That’s the thing that makes people come back and the guest may not know all of those things in minute detail, but it comes through in the quality of the product. And when you serve it with a smile on your face and you’ve got folks, we were one of the first that we’re a nonconformist brand. So whereas the other folks in the industry, were saying, Oh, if you have piercings or tattoos, you have to cover them up. We said, come as you are, as long as you give friendly hospitable service and you know how to say yes to the guest, we want you working at Blaze.
I want to come back to that people point cause that is truly unique. But as a former CFO, there is a cost to having ingredients that are at this quality level that you’re describing and having that be one of the unique things about your product that must have a margin impact. It must be something that you think about. And there, there is an actual hard cost of delivering products with all top quality ingredients. How do you think about that trade off? Because it’s tough in the fast food industry.
Well, you’re absolutely right. And I think frankly that was one of the things, that transition from CFO to CEO. I’m not the kind of person who “squeezes the turnip” is my phrase that I call it where you’re always looking to cut a dime. You ha– you do, have to be careful. It’s a balance. It takes longer to find great clean ingredients. It’s a little bit more intensive on the front end because you have to have that commitment and the, you know, with, with labor rates rising around the country, it’s really easy to start to get pressured on, well, maybe we could shave the quality on a couple of things, but that’s the death by a thousand cuts where you end up like some of the legacy brands in casual dining that used to be amazing. And now they’re a little less so because they took their eye off the ball and they started compromising on, made fresh daily, right?
They started bringing in more frozen things. More preservatives so that things last longer to manage costs. And the consumer knows. Again, they may not know in detail what you’re doing in your restaurant. It comes through in the quality of the food every day and when you’re committed to it. For us to say we’re essentially nut-free, to have gluten free products, to have as many vegan and plant-based alternatives that we have. If we let that go, then we become just like everybody else and we lose our edge. So really it’s, it’s great communication of the value proposition, right? Coming from Bloomin’ Brands, I tell people, you know, people think Fleming’s is a great value, but their average check is, who knows what the number is anymore – it’s been awhile – $60. It’s still a great value. So whatever you pay, you have to walk away not thinking it was cheap, but thinking you got a great deal for your money. And the thing with the build your own premise of Blaze is for one price, you can put anything you want on your pizza. We don’t nickel and dime you. We don’t say for every topping I gotta add 75 cents or a dollar, which means at the right price point, people walk away feeling extremely satisfied with great quality food and it’s really imperative that we stick with that or it starts to denigrate the brand.
That’s great. And the uniqueness of your staff is the other thing that you alluded to and I think very important particularly in an environment where service still very much matters for the in-restaurant experience and the cost to a restaurant of delivering great service and finding great people who will stick with the brand for a long time. It’s only going up and in certain places, I know you’re based in California, it’s really going up. Right? And so you found a unique approach of finding people who are passionate and who fit the Blaze brand. How does that become a unique differentiator for you and a competitive advantage?
Well, it kind of goes back to and I’m sure you’ll touch on it at some point, but your your Four Horsemen piece, right? There’s an insertion of technology now in the delivery component of things. But what’s not there is the people component. And it really matters when you walk into our restaurants that you feel greeted. Hi, welcome to blaze. Have you been to Blaze before? Can I help you figure this out? Because it is new for some people, right? There’s an adaptation process that you have to go through. And really in the franchise industry it’s a little tougher because we employ six, “we” the collective system, right? Employ 6,000 people. I don’t employ them though. In a company owned organization, it’s a little easier to put together the kinds of employee motivating programs that are out there to get people to want to work for you and continue to work for you. So we have to get more creative about it. But that’s part of it is saying I don’t, I don’t have a preset notion of what you have to look like or what your background is. So long as you buy into what Blaze delivers figuratively and literally, then I want you working for us. Right. And it makes us more open minded about what uniforms can look like. What people look like going down the line, different, different types of headgear, like headbands instead of hats, which are the industry traditional that says come as you are and especially appeals to the millennial and gen Z folks, which are a huge part of our demographic as you can imagine.
Yeah. And so it, that approach to having the right staff is not only great customer experience, but I would imagine that it actually allows longer term relationships with those employees as well who will stick around at Blaze and be longer term, more committed. And this is something that Chipotle has talked a lot about: promoting from within and building longterm employee relationships. Have, have you seen that with your policy? And do you have people who have made their way up the Blaze ranks promoted from junior roles into much more, much more experienced senior roles?
Oh, sure. The only difference is we’ve only been around seven years for the brand, right. And of size. A ton of that growth has happened in the last three years. So we probably are shorter on some of those stories because we’re still so new. But it’s definitely the, the thing I get most excited about. We have a, we have an Instagram feed for staff, right? Where they can post stories and we engage with them and the stories I hear of people who say, I started as a line person and now I’m an AGM or then, then I was a general manager and now they’re becoming district people is what makes me happy. You know, the, the restaurant business is still one of the best career opportunities in the country where you don’t necessarily have to have a degree. If you show up and you work hard and you’re good at it, the potential is limitless.
You can make six figures and support your family eventually, right? You don’t necessarily need to do it day one, which will get me in the whole minimum wage conversation. But it really is about opportunity and saying if you show up in a restaurant and work hard and especially if you feel cared about, which is part of the Blaze system, then you do hang around because you see the opportunity. You want to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself and something that’s a culture that you you feel like you’re in and it’s, it’s quality without compromise. And that has very much a lasting impression with people.
Right? So, so the experience in the very early days of Blaze, and this experience is unchanged, but the way people are experiencing is different. The experience is walk up and choose to make a pizza that is uniquely you. Choose your ingredients, put them on the pizza, watch it get fired and get the pizza, uh a few minutes later for a great dining experience. But now, a huge portion of restaurant instances are happening through digital channels. Ordering through websites and mobile apps has soared. 26% of customers are placing orders through a website, an increase of 20 to 50% over the last couple of years. I’m sure those numbers looked something like that at Blaze where you have a generally younger demographic. Mobile app usage is spiking meaningfully as people look to use their phone to place an order and they expect it to be ready right when they show up at a restaurant. How is that changing the dynamic in terms of delivering your product and in terms of thinking about how do you engage with customers?
Great question. It’s funny that that core experience, like I said, doesn’t change. If you try to modify who you are, you end up in a really scary place. So the other innovation that, that Elise and Rick had initially was to put a back line, we call it the back, the back line. Now we’re calling it the digital line in every restaurant. So we’re not having to go back and figure out how to make a pizza. And if you’re there in the restaurant in line, I’m not aggravating you by inserting an online order in front of yours and making you wait and stand there for some mysterious person that you can’t even see. Which for us is a competitive advantage because there are a lot of people that don’t have that set up, some of these line type businesses that are out there.
So I would say that, that, again, the form of ordering hasn’t changed and the goal for Blaze is 360 degree avail– availability is what I call it. We did redesign our website. It’s less friction now, another industry buzzword that everybody’s talking about, but we’ve actually gone and done it. Fewer clicks to get what you want, uh, better repeat ordering, uh, better photography of our food, frankly, so that you actually can look at what you might be getting and it’s more visually appealing. And next on our list is to go take a look at our app as well. Our app is highly functional but probably not optimized. But that’s, that’s the target area, right? You can always now get better. And the, I call it the halflife of everything is continuing to shrink. You just have to get faster and have more agility in what you’re doing.
But again, for us, it’s it’s be to the guest where they are. So with the rise of delivery and also carry out is a lot larger than people give credit for. It’s still, you know, Domino’s is giving numbers of 35%. I’d say we’re at 40% or more where even when delivery is free, people choose to come get their own pizza, which I adore because then it’s a lot more controlled experience as well. Right? and to your point, I then get to have that hospitality moment where I’m greeting them and I’m saying, Hey, can I help you find your pizza? Is everything okay today? And, and continue that with Blaze. But one of the things we did in September was launch a whole new product. We engineered a larger pizza, a 14 inch pizza with a thicker crust so that it holds heat better as a delivery product. If you choose to have more pizza or you have a family dinner on a Friday night or you have your kid’s birthday party, it’s easier to order that than it might be to order other 11 inch customizable pizzas. So it’s really just an extension of our original product and it just means that the engineering of how to get that product out the door was something that we focused on. Again, simplicity instead of complexity. And really making sure that we folded it in nicely with the rest of our digital offering means it’s not that much of a lift for us.
Q and A with the restaurant industry’s leading disruptor. This is Food Fighters, the podcast.
You’ve made some decisions around delivery to do things like offer free delivery, sometimes as promotions through various third parties. You obviously have ordering direct to Blaze through your website and your mobile application. The difference of those two things is massive from a margin standpoint. So how do you think about, from a digital capture of customer and from a lifetime value standpoint, the tradeoffs between owned digital channels versus third party digital channels?
That’s a great question. I think a lot of people try to make it an absolute. The very easy answer is of course we would like them to go through our website, our app, because then we get the CRM, right? We get the customer data. I get to know you as a guest, especially like you said with our variety of toppings. I want to know what you’re putting on your pizza. So I want that data for myself. But I’d sort of be putting my head in the sand if I didn’t say that third party delivery is a necessity. That the consumer wants it and you’re playing a game if you think that that’s not the way to go. Udo I believe that you have to protect your brand? Absolutely. Ulike I said, a lot of the dialogue around that lately is,uvery helpful and, and you’re on point when you talk about,uthe impact that it’s having on the business.
Certainly the margins are better when they come through our door, but we still make money for sure on third party because we’re very tough on our contracting. And the one thing that the industry needs to pressure the third party delivery companies with and they’re, they’re waking up to this is, like I said, there’s a service component that exists that they haven’t acknowledged yet. Even though their drivers are contractors. Any other vendor that you have, right, your, your cloud services, your cleaning services in your restaurant, you name it, they have service level arrangements where they agree that, you know, they’re there, some things wouldn’t have happened within a certain period of time or the error rates have to be at a certain level. Think about your distribution companies, same thing. So even though these drivers are contractors, we have to figure out a way to incentivize them to deliver great experience as well. Don’t don’t eat the fries on the way to the delivery or some of the things that people are starting to talk about from that perspective. And uh then I think the market will balance itself out. It’s still pretty much the wild, wild West and the promotions are out there running rampant because they’re all fighting for share today, which works in the favor of restaurants. I do think it settles down at some point and comes to a, uh a profitable model for those of us that participate and one that actually delivers great quality as well.
Yeah, I mean it’s, it’s a frightening state of affairs when you, when you connect the dots that certain restaurants, it sounds like you are indeed making profit on a, on a third party delivery order, but certain restaurants aren’t making much money or any money on third party delivery orders. The delivery companies themselves are not profitable in many instances. And the consumer is feeling that the service fees that are charged are unreasonable. And when all three are complaining about the current state of affairs, you know, that we’re still in very early innings of this, of this digital delivery disruption that’s coming down the pipe. So as, as you think about where Blaze is today, there is of course, industry-wide speculation that the future for Blaze is one of the next restaurant IPOs. And with the fast location growth things like that have to be on your mind. You’ve seen that story before you, you were there at Bloomin’ through, through the IPO. What are you thinking about as CEO in getting your brand ready to be a public company? At some point, I’m not trying to hold you to a date but, but what are you thinking about in terms of getting your brand and your organization ready and what are some of the milestones that you feel like you want Blaze to hit before making a consideration like that?
You know, that’s funny Zach. It’s always an interesting question to me because the first question is generally, when are you going to IPO? And I say, why are we asking that question now? It’s I don’t say it’s an absolute. If you focus on a long term sustainable business model, that stuff happens when it’s supposed to. Right? You get a ton of pressure from industry folks that want to be the ones that take you out there. It’s been too long since there’s been a restaurant company that has IPO’d with uh success to a high degree, but um that doesn’t put undue pressure on us. The fabulous part of being with Brentwood and it’s imperative to have private equity folks who are, are partners with you and of the same mindset is it comes in its time, right? And the preparation is really the evaluation of whether you’re ready. You know, at Bloomin’ because of the privatization transaction, we needed to do that to do some long term changes to the business. And then it showed when we went public again, because we took the time to do the right things. For a young company like us, the biggest thing would be the control set of how do we make sure that we’re prepared for all of the administrative and oversight parts that come with it. And there’s a tremendous cost that comes with that. The other thing is, as CEO, you know, how you go to market and making sure you establish that relationship right off the bat that you can’t live on the quarterly earnings. You cannot make those decisions on a short term basis. It has to be long term decisions. And if you just start chasing quarterly numbers, you might end up a little bit dissatisfied with where you ended up. So right now that’s not, you know, what, what we focus on, especially as a franchise business, I think we have to be careful because then franchisees started thinking, Oh, that’s, that’s the only thing that the corporate folks are worried about is their IPO or, or how does that affect the business?
And if you’re doing all the right things and really growing smartly, I’ll call it, not even opening restaurants just for the sake of throwing up numbers, but really being thoughtful about site selection density in markets and those sorts of things, IPO or otherwise, it it all takes care of itself.
Yeah, absolutely. And really it comes down at the end of the day to customer lifetime value. And if you can keep opening good restaurants with good franchise partners and delivering great customer experiences and that LTV number keeps coming up, then, then you have a lot of options in front of you. And that’s clearly where Blaze is right now.
So we call this podcast Food Fighters. And that’s because it is, it is quite a competitive landscape out there. Who’s doing it well? Who, who are you in a food fight with that you look at and you say, well, I got to give it to them. They are making it hard for us and we could learn some things from them.
It’s funny, the blurred lines, right? What used to be just QSR and casual dining and then fast casual came in the middle and sort of disrupted a little bit and the lines are blurring again. The, the line blur between fast casual, casual dining the great QSR folks and fast casual is is squeezing everybody, such that most of the time when people ask me about pizza competition, I say it’s not really pizza, it’s fast casual in general that we compete with. You know, if I have to, if I have to name names, Chick-fil-A is, is just honestly really good. Their growth pattern, their focus on quality the way they treat their people. I think the way they grew over time has given them a tremendous competitive edge. And, and they have a consumer product that people tend to enjoy, right?
So they’re in the same competitive set. And then Chipotle of course with their new leadership and the things that they’ve been doing lately they are renovating and innovating. And those are the things that are the lifeblood of the restaurant business in terms of you don’t have to change your brand. Right? Innovation for us is things like introducing a keto crust first in the industry to do so. And like I said, bringing pizza back for pizza, people who maybe had given up pizza. And we hear that all the time. Like, Oh my gosh, I thought I was never going to have pizza again. And those are the things that are important. So I don’t say that anybody is doing a better job than us at it. Like I said, we’re just a little bit younger and we’ve got some size to get after, but it’s definitely such a competitive landscape that if you do compromise on service or quality you probably won’t be up in the, in the upper tiers with everyone else.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, last question for you. Blaze is well known to have some big name celebrity investors. One of them recently moved to town in LA in LeBron James. And so what do you do to build a brand that has these outsize celebrity names associated with it? And no doubt it’s not a bad thing for any brand to have LeBron James associated with them, but you have to build your brand that is Blaze, not just Blaze plus LeBron James. How, how has that been a, a plus for the, for the brand and something that you can turn into a huge strength to be – to be a celebrity affiliated restaurant.
Well we’re based in California, so that doesn’t hurt in terms of exposure to folks in what I’ll call the industry. Just like John Davis, who’s one of the most prolific movie producers whose on our board. What it means is those folks have a pulse on the consumer, right? Some of the celebrities. And LeBron in general got him interested really early because of the quality in the product that Blaze offered, right? They, they want to be affiliated with great brands. They don’t want to just make money. They want to establish that they can pick the best and be affiliated with the best. Right? He’s arguably greatest of all time depending on who you ask. So it doesn’t impact us, so much as, we welcome their support. We don’t change the fundamentals because Blaze was Blaze before. It’s not LeBron’s Pizza Place, it’s Blaze Pizza.
But we love his support. We love the fact that he loves our brand. And to your point, it is just an added benefit because then you’ve got that that consumer pulse and that voice that helps get some of the public relations and other exposure that a brand might not have. When you’re this young, you get an outsized impact on the consumer base. But it’s, it’s fantastic because it’s much like private equity, if you partner with the right people and they’re interested in getting out of your way and letting you run your business and it’s focused on the things that you started, speed, quality, great service, then it can be a very a very conducive match.
Well Lebron, who I’m sure is listening to the Food Fighters podcast and learning about Blaze right now is always welcome on the podcast. And so we’ll just extend that invite right now. But Mandy, this has been a fantastic conversation learned a lot and really appreciate your insight and transparency. So thank you for joining Food Fighters. Congrats on everything that you’ve built at Blaze Pizza and looking forward to seeing where you take the brand in your new role as CEO.
That’s fantastic. Thanks so much Zach, and I look forward to your next podcast. Uh, I’m enjoying your series very much. Thank you very much.
You’ve been listening to Food Fighters with me, Zach Goldstein. To subscribe to the podcast or to learn more about our featured guests, visit thanx.com/food-fighters. That’s “Thanx” spelled THANX.com/food-fighters. This podcast is a production of Thanx, the leading CRM and digital engagement solution for restaurants. Until next time, keep fighting food fighters.