blazepizza

LeBron James-connected “Chipotle of pizzerias” opening near Temple

Blaze Pizza’s founders want their brand to be as big and far-reaching as Starbucks.

Temple students will soon be able to chow down on King James-approved pizza.

In the first quarter of 2016, Blaze Fast Fire’d Pizza will open its first regional location at 11th and Montgomery — right next to Temple’s campus. The site is just over a block from the library, in the same building as Potbelly and Chipotle.

So what’s the big deal about yet another pizzeria in a town already saturated with them?

This isn’t just any pizzeria. It’s the fast-growing California chain that just scored LeBron James as its spokesperson. The NBA superstar walked away from his McDonald’s endorsement deal for this venture — leaving piles of cash on the table. He’s actually been an investor in the business ever since it was launched back in 2012, by Rick and Elise Wetzel (of Wetzel’s Pretzels) along with chef Bradford Kent.

Another way this fast-casual is not McDonald’s: “Have it your way” could be the corporate philosophy. Ordering works similarly to Chipotle: Step up to the counter and choose one of several pre-made combos or just pick your meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces as your crust (fermented for 24 hours) makes its way down the line. Your pie is then tossed in a stone-hearth oven that reaches 900 degrees. Three minutes later, it’s pulled, sliced and slid across the counter. Prices range from $5 to $10, depending on what you put on your pie.

The Blaze menu also includes a half-dozen salads, like chicken Caesar and goat cheese-beet, plus s’more pie for dessert. The 3,000-square-foot store will have seating for 69 and offer online ordering for easy grab-and-go.

Of course, regular, old-school pizzerias also let you pick toppings, so the concept of build-your-own pizza isn’t exactly ground-breaking. But the combination of friendly counter service, lots of fresh toppings, eco-friendly packaging and sleek, industrial design (by architect Ana Henton) has been a winning formula. And it’s growing extremely fast.

Chipotle might have been the inspiration for Blaze, but its founders have even bigger ambitions.

“Not just Chipotle, with 1,800 stores. Who’s going to be the Starbucks of fast casual?” Rick Wetzel told Bloomberg back in April. The same story reported that sales were up 450 percent last year, and that the target is to have 500 stores by 2020 (Blaze currently operates 91 restaurants across 22 states and in Canada).

Speaking of more stores, two additional Philadelphia Blaze Pizza outposts are already in development, according to a marketing rep, although the locations have not yet been revealed.

LeBron isn’t the only sports connection for the franchise — Maria Shriver and Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner are also investors — but it sure would be cool if the King himself came to town for the grand opening.

Stay tuned.

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