Cafe Society

Fast-Casual Pizza Chains Vie for a Slice of the Denver Market

Restaurateurs around Denver are really hoping you'll get on board with their fast-casual pizza concepts; time and money are being spent perfecting dough recipes, building health-conscious angles, and firing up custom ovens to blister crusts in the amount of time it takes you to swipe a debit card. Businesses are welcoming comparisons to other successful fast-casual operations -- after all, if consumers have made the lowly burrito the king of the quick lunch, success seems more likely for newer chains if they mimic Chipotle's service model and goals. Pizzeria Locale, Modmarket and Project Pizza are all competing for a slice of the pie market and are learning as they go.

See also: Frasca Team Opens Second Fast-Casual Pizzeria Locale

Boulder-based Modmarket just announced that it has retooled its dough recipe, adding stone-ground wheat to the mix along with sea salt, olive oil, agave sugar and an overnight rise, which, according to the company's press release, adds more flavor and strength to the finished dough. The new dough is now available at all eight Colorado Modmarket locations. A recent article on Thrillist included Modmarket in a list of small chains that could someday reach Chipotle-like proportions. The company also builds sandwiches and salads, capitalizing on the healthy-food trend in case the fast-casual pizza boom fizzles. This comes right as the latest Pizzeria Locale opened in the West Highland neighborhood and owners Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (both of Frasca fame) announced that they've rolled out a new 100 percent stone-ground wheat dough, some of which is actually ground in-store in a custom-built mill. Pizzeria Locale plans to retrofit its original fast-casual restaurant on Broadway with the same equipment and processes to make the new dough, which will also be the standard for all future locations. Comparisons with Chipotle are accurate when it comes to Pizzeria Locale; Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson teamed with the burrito giant to streamline the concept, based on their original Boulder pizzeria, for the fast-casual market. A newcomer to Colorado, Project Pie fired up its ovens in Boulder in August, bringing what the company described as a "Chipotle-like mantra" to the metro area's pizza scene. And it seems as if "Chipotle-like" is just as good as Chipotle-financed, at least for Project Pie, which plans to add six more of its pizzerias to the Denver area, starting in 2015 under the ownership of Bruce Koeller, who also operates ten Subway franchises here. The chain is growing quickly, with more than twenty locations operating or opening soon, including several in the Philippines. Project Pie's claim to fast-casual authenticity goes back a few years: CEO James Markham also co-founded MOD Pizza (not to be confused with Modmarket, MOD Pizza also opened its first Colorado location at Park Meadows last month) in Seattle in 2008 and Pieology in California.

With so much pizza cooking up along the Front Range, it's easy to believe that we're already at the saturation point, but Chipotle itself became ubiquitous while opening the doors for other burrito chains, with no signs of slowing. And it wasn't so long ago that fast-food burger joints sat on almost every corner of every city and town in the country, with customers happily munching away at Big Macs, Whoppers and square Wendy's burgers.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation