Blaze Pizza is a California-based fast casual pizza chain with 250+ locations in the U.S. and Canada.
Blaze Pizza Offers Plant-Based Cheese
To Attract Diners Looking for Plant-based Options
“We can remove the veto factor by offering free-from options”
Q: Tell us a little bit about why you chose to offer allergen-free items.
Brad: We wanted everyone to have the same experience, even if they have an allergy or dietary preference. Our gluten-free dough is made in-house and provides the same experience as regular dough; it’s not an afterthought, not something you have to run into the back to get. We want customers to feel involved as the cooks, our employees are just their hands.
Q: Why did Blaze Pizza choose to add plant-based cheese to the menu?
Brad: I’m a Southern California native, and in 1994 I was driving from LA to New York to go to culinary school. My girlfriend was vegan, we were driving along route 66, and there were not a lot of meal options. As a Californian, I was used to fresh fruits and veggies — meat was a flavor enhancer, not an entree. We had no options for food unless we went to McDonalds for a meatless, cheeseless burger. I thought at the time that we were not the only people who wanted something healthy, fast, and affordable.
At the Culinary Institute of America then, there weren’t a lot of classes focused on casual dining. Lots of chefs now do fast casual bringing fine dining and cooking down to earth and making it available to all. Chipotle and Shake Shack are examples of chef-run, fast-casual chains that do this well.
We had to have options to address people’s growing interest in plant-based proteins. Not just for allergies, but for people who were choosing to avoid ingredients like gluten. We wanted to be approachable and appealing to diners from all walks of life, and pizza is great for that, it’s highly approachable. The quality of ingredients was incorporated from fine dining, like slow-made dough.
Vegan should not be an afterthought, it should be a forethought, it is the future.
Q: What are the benefits from your perspective of offering plant-based cheese?
Brad: Vegan cheese compared to mozzarella is more expensive, and we debated when opening Blaze if we needed to charge extra. Initially we did charge extra for vegan cheese, and we had spoilage because we didn’t use it enough. Vegans and people with allergies to dairy protested, saying they were being punished because of dietary restriction or preferences.
We decided to test not charging for it, and we made up the extra cost just by reducing waste from spoilage, since more people ordered it. People who are not vegan or allergic to dairy try it.
Q: Do you have insight into whether the plant-based offerings are attracting new consumers to your restaurants?
Brad: I wish we knew, but we don’t have that kind of data. We offer gluten-free crust and vegan cheese to make sure that if a group of 6 people are making a decision on where to eat and one has an allergy or dietary preference, we can remove the veto factor by offering free-from options.
Q: Do you have plans to offer more plant-based cheeses or meats in the future?
Brad: Some of our restaurants are testing fried tofu as a topping. Some customers might like plant-based meats, but I want high-quality products, not a “food science” product, but a culinary product. We want our ingredients to be clean, natural, and delicious. We are currently working with some plant-based protein manufacturers, within one year hopefully we will have a meatless meat option.
We work with our suppliers to encourage them to make better, cleaner-label products. This isn’t just for Blaze, but it benefits the whole market. We were the first to ask our suppliers for nitrate-free pepperoni, which was a benefit for us and for others, and it didn’t even cost more — the market had just been doing it because that was the way they had always done it. We did the same thing with Daiya; we were the first to offer a new Daiya cheese free from titanium dioxide whitener, and with a cleaner label it melts much better and has better texture.
Q: What new plant-based products would you like to see manufacturers develop?
Brad: I want to see plant-based products become more affordable and made available to all, that’s how to make a difference in our health and in our nation’s food supply.