Mamma Mia! Chipotle Switches Lanes and Tries Its Hand at Pizza

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/69082156@N06/

Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) consumers thought they struck gold with the restaurant’s make-your-own burritos, but things just got a little cheesier. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chipotle has teamed up with a group of restaurants that are trying to make a Chipotle-style make-your-own pizza chain happen. Chipotle helped finance the opening of a Pizzeria Locale restaurant in Denver earlier this year, and now the employees at the restaurant function similarly to those who work at Chipotle locations — but they make customers a customized pizza rather than a customized burrito.

The idea for a middle-of-the-road pizza restaurant was born after Pizzeria Locale executives recognized that Americans eat a lot of pizza, but there is a gap in the market between frozen pizza you can find in the supermarket freezer aisle and the pizza served at high-end Italian restaurants. The Journal reports that about 75 percent of people now report having pizza at least once in a two-week period, up from 66 percent in 2003, but most consumers are getting their pizza from the delivery man or their neighborhood supermarket, meaning pizza-serving restaurants aren’t benefitting as much as they should.

But all that could be poised to change, because although Pizzeria Locale is just getting its footing, once it expands, consumers from all over the country could stand in line at the restaurant and choose from toppings while watching their food being made, just like they now do at Chipotle locations. Chipotle’s model of service has proven extremely successful, and now is not only upsetting sales for lower-end fast food places like McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) and Burger King (NYSE:BKW); it also is stealing business from sit-down chains like Olive Garden. Consumers are helping reveal a trend that eaters now want their food made with higher quality, fresher ingredients, but they still don’t want to sit down and wait for it.

The financial agreement between Chipotle and Pizzeria Locale is still unclear, but the Journal reports that Chipotle is an investor in the Denver Locale and has the option to become majority owner in the future. Although Chipotle is confident the new pizza chain guinea pig will eventually succeed, executives also share an understanding that Pizzeria Locale still has some hurdles to overcome, and customers may be initially fixated on the different way the made-to-eat pizzas taste. Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, co-owner of the restaurant, explains that it “will be a challenge” to convince Americans to eat pizza low on cheese with a slightly charred crust but he maintains, “All these triple-cheese, stuffed this-and-that” pizzas don’t improve taste. “I want the canvas of the dough to be seasoned as you would a great salad. It’s just not something the most Americans are used to and we realize that.”

Nonetheless, Pizzeria Locale is sticking to its guns, and hoping that pizza lovers will eventually come around to enjoy the thin, Neapolitan-style version of their favorite food. It’s difficult to pull off fast, premium pizza, but the company has found a way to do it with fresh ingredients, and it employs the use of newly designed to cook their made-to-order pizzas as fast as possible. Hungry consumers only have to wait two minutes for their customized pizza to cook once they’ve placed their order, and they can watch the whole process unfold, as the Journal points that a glass-enclosed dough-making room is placed in the restaurant for easy viewing.

One the pizza is cooked, in true Chipotle style, customers pay at the counter. Individual 11-inch pizzas cost around $6.50 and topping include fresh mozzarella and prosciutto. The restaurant’s service is a far cry from other fast food companies’ way of doing things, but Chipotle has proven that fresher is better, and Pizzeria Locale is ready to illuminate that that reality extends to the ingredients that make up cheesy pizzas, too. Now, we’ll just have to wait and see if Pizzeria Locale can make it out of Denver and into other pizza-hungry locations.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet