A pizza chain backed by LeBron James was just named the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the US.
Blaze Pizza grew sales 205% over the prior year, the largest gain of any restaurant chain measured in the 2016 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
The sales explosion is happening at a time when LeBron James is taking a more hands-on approach to his investment.
While some investors are happy to fund a company and wait for the profits to roll in, James recently went to work at a Blaze Pizza location in Los Angeles, serving customers as new employee "Ron."
In a new commercial for the 105-location chain, "Ron" jokes with customers, as they eye the 6-foot-8 basketball superstar helping prepare pizzas with a strange sense of déjà vu.
"I’m shadowing," James assures the customers. "A really tall shadow."
While many celebrity cameos feel forced and a bit awkward, James’ surprising comedic skills — which shone in "Trainwreck," a comedy starring Amy Schumer — make him the perfect person to star in the commercial.
Even more perfect is the fact that James has been a part of the pizza company since the beginning.
James was an original investor in Blaze Pizza in 2012, with franchise rights for the chain in Miami and Chicago. Last October, James ditched a McDonald’s endorsement deal to commit to becoming a bigger part of Blaze’s marketing campaign.
"This move aligns with LeBron's brand and his history of helping companies grow faster and bigger as an equity partner," James’ business manager, Maverick Carter, told ESPN of the deal.
James’ place in the marketing campaign is part of Blaze's plan to become the biggest name in the fast-casual business.
"Not just Chipotle, with 1,800 stores. Who's going to be the Starbucks of fast casual? There's going to be a shift soon for people to start thinking above Chipotle," cofounder Rick Wetzel told Bloomberg last April.
The company tripled its sales to $101 million in 2015, compared to the previous year, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. Same-store sales increased 7% in the same time period.
By 2017, Blaze Pizza wants to be the fifth-largest pizza chain in the US, behind Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s.
Unlike at many other chains, at Blaze Pizza, the pizzas are made fresh in front of customers’ eyes.
Employees make the dough by hand, and allow it to rise for 24 hours before serving. Then, customers build their own pizzas, picking from seven cheeses, eight proteins, 20 vegetables, and three sauces. The pies are placed in an extremely hot stone-hearth oven, which takes just three minutes to cook the pie.
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