Blaze Pizza, Bethesda

I had lunch at the Westfield Montgomery (formerly Montgomery Mall) Blaze Pizza today at around 11:45 (they opened at 11, and I was ticket #9). If you’re standing outside, facing the Cheesecake Factory, go into the entrance on your left (do this despite the daunting construction) – It’s Bobby’s Burger Palace on your right, and Blaze Pizza on your left.

There were 13 employees I counted working the restaurant (this means there are probably a couple others), and including a family of 5, there were 8 of us in the restaurant, so the combination of “just opened” and “pre-lunch” meant they were overstaffed at this particular moment.

The two restaurants that popped into my head were Chipotle Grill and Subway. Chipotle, because they’re probably the most disruptive restaurant of our generation, establishing (if not inventing) the “quick-serve” or “fast-casual” model that *everyone* is trying to emulate, some with more success than others. Subway, because as I was standing there, meandering down the line, I stared at some of the ingredients (and I’m thinking right now of the sliced pepperoni and sliced olives), saying to myself, ‘Ugh, I’m in Subway.’

Just as in Shake Shack the other evening, the employees were delightfully friendly. I ordered a Link In ($7.65) with sausage, red peppers, sautéed onions, mozzarella, and red sauce, and along with the other Signature Pizzas, this was the most expensive single item on their menu (there’s no doubt they’re doing some trailblazing with the pricing of their whole pizzas – $7.65 for an 11″ pizza is dirt cheap, but you should be aware that their food costs are almost surely less than $2.50 – since all the Signature Pizzas are $7.65, some will make more money than others, but everything is The Same because the key issues here are 1) ticket time and 2) overall sales, assuming any particular item doesn’t gouge them too much.

The oven has flaming, gas-powered heat sources in the back, the left, and the right. Although the menu claims my pizza is cooked at 810 degrees and is done in 3 minutes, on this particular occasion, it just wasn’t that hot, and it took closer to 5 minutes than 3 (I did not time it, but it may have been on the far side of 5 minutes, and at one point, the pizzaiolo even held the pizza off the oven, in the air, and near the flame to get it cooked evenly (interestingly, I saw Edan Macquaid do this very thing at Range when I was sitting directly in front of him – “Why are you doing that?” I asked him. “Why do you think?” he replied). Anyway, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, who cares – it’s fast, the crust is very thin (with a wisely constructed raised lip around the periphery to prevent spills and drippage), and if they can put out orders in less than 10 minutes or so, nobody will really care. The cashier (friendly) tried to upsell me with a salad and/or a soft drink, but I wasn’t in the mood (make no mistake about it: Those types of “Would you like a?” questions at the register are company-directed upsells).

As for the pizza, it’s about what you’d think it would be – barely enough food for an adult meal, stingy on the toppings, and enough to keep the average person satisfied until dinnertime. The breakthrough here is the quick-serve format for pizzas, and I suspect that Blaze Pizza will do just fine – the quick-serve format is a proven winner, and other than hamburgers, pizza is probably the most widely sought food in America (this is just a guess, but I guarantee it’s in the top five). Personally, I have no need to return, but I wasn’t repelled either, so I would willingly go again if I were in the mall with someone who wanted to try it, but I also bear no delusions that I’m getting anything of higher quality than any other fast-casual joint.

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