BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – The creators of California Pizza Kitchen are hungry for a slice of the piping hot fast-casual segment. Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield, who launched California Pizza Kitchen in 1985, plan to introduce a new fast-casual pizza concept as part of its recently founded investment portfolio, Flax and Rosenfield Capital Partners.

“The current environment allows us the perfect opportunity to develop our own unique fast casual pizza concept, and we look forward to revolutionizing the fast casual industry with our new restaurants,” Rosenfield said.
Pizza represents a relatively unsaturated market in the fast-casual segment, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, Inc.

"Made-to-order pizza can be the next big growth niche because its fresh, gourmet positioning provides a strong platform for popular health and wellness concepts," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. "The 'better' trend seen in 'better burgers' will also drive 'better sandwich' and 'better pizza' concepts. Not only are made-to-order pizza concepts delivering better quality and fresher ingredients, consumers are able to create their own pizzas that are ready within minutes, a proven recipe for success within the fast-casual space."

In October, food court pizza chain Sbarro debuted its first fast-casual concept with Pizza Cucinova in Columbus, Ohio. Heralding a Naples-inspired artisan approach to hand-crafted and wood-fired pies, the restaurant’s menu features such varieties as fennel sausage with fire-roasted broccolini, clam and shrimp, and steak and gorgonzola cheese.

From gourmet toppings to gluten-free crusts, the pizza market has trended beyond traditional in recent years, according to research from Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands. Flatbreads represent a large slice of new product activity during the first half of 2013, according to Lu Ann Williams, director of Innova Market Insights, adding that this slimmer style often delivers “upscale flavors.”

Complex, upmarket and spicy toppings have popped up on more pies in casual dining and quick-service chains alike. Earlier this year, Papa Murphy’s introduced a Primo Line of take-and-bake pizza featuring such gourmet ingredients as goat cheese, fennel sausage, arugula and prosciutto.

The hot trend extends to the frozen section of supermarkets, where DiGiorno, a Nestle U.S.A. brand, launched pizzeria-style products made with a drizzle of olive oil and toppings like caramelized onions, Genoa salami and pecorino romano cheese. The Schwan Food Co. dished up new Freschetta frozen pizzas made with olive oil and sea salt, as well as new Red Baron offerings, including a pizza topped with spicy pepperoni, jalapenos and a chipotle sauce. New frozen pizzas from Nestle’s California Pizza Kitchen portfolio include two limited-edition Crispy Thin Crust varieties: California Pizza Kitchen Greek Recipe, which is topped with tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, kalamata olives, red onions, spinach, oregano and a blend of cheeses; and California Pizza Kitchen Spicy Chipotle Chicken, which is topped with grilled white-meat chicken, roasted corn, black beans, poblano peppers, four types of cheese and a spicy chipotle lime sauce.