Hot Heads & Rapid Fired Pizza founder on a regional growth approach

| by S.A. Whitehead
Hot Heads & Rapid Fired Pizza founder on a regional growth approach

Rapid Fired Pizza co-founder and President Ray Wiley shines the light on his young pizza brand.

Ray Wiley is an aptly named restaurateur. Like the infamous Wile E. Coyote of cartoon fame, he is always churning out new ideas to beat the odds. Unlike the defeated Wile E., Ray Wiley is used to winning. Take, for example, his highly successful Mexican brand — Hot Heads Burritos. It opened 10 years ago and now boasts 74 locations. His latest venture — a quick-serve pizza chain called Rapid Fired —  is only 1.5 years old but already has 15 stores with 35 expected to be operating in six states by year's end with plenty of growth to follow. 

Ray, a 28-year Subway franchisee, has a system that works. He and his team, a  group of restaurant operators, along with real estate maven, Kelly Gray, and marketer and son, Peter Wiley, launched both concepts and then quickly grew them regionally.

In the case of Rapid Fired, that area is centered around tiny Kettering, Ohio, just outside the Dayton metro region, which extends south to Cincinnati with its Indiana and Kentucky components, and north toward Columbus. This is not the typical Southern California pizza paradise that is brimming with every variation of pizza restaurant, but rather a conservative area that's home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Proctor & Gamble and even a developing tech sector. The bottom line is that these "solid American backbone communities" love Rapid Fired because it's not only very fast with its food service — as its name implies — but is also very easy to find since it is fast-becoming ubiquitous geographically. 

In fact, this past week, Rapid Fired opened its newest location in the Columbus, Ohio hamlet of Hilliard, on Fishinger Boulevard. As is usually the case with Rapid Fired openings, the chain is celebrating this one with a free pizza give-away this Saturday, April 8, when 500 free pies will help the brand grab a whole lot of new customers.

"We are looking forward to bringing personalized pizza to the Hilliard community made in just 180 seconds," said Gray, who helped found the chain with Wiley. "Our team has achieved so much in such a small amount of time and we are really proud of them."

So what makes a 180-second pizza concept so popular in the heart of the Midwest and what's the M.O. behind birthing a concept under a regional growth model? Those are the kinds of questions we took recently to Wiley for some insight into how a chain like his — which even boasts a "No-Doh pizza" using spinach or parmesan as a base instead of traditional pizza dough — can do so well so quickly.

Q: How was the Rapid Fired Pizza concept developed and tested?

Wiley:Quick-serve pizza was just getting started as I began to watch a few chains build stores in 2013 and 2014. I believed the QSR pizza concept had legs, so I began working on a pilot store.  

We opened our first store in Sept 2015, and it did great from day one, so we started building location No. 2 soon after. We have now 15 stores open in just over 18 months, with 13 more under construction. We currently have four area development contracts in four states and expect to sign a large development contract for Texas by the end of April. 

With all we have going on, we expect as many as 50 stores by the end of 2017 and over 100 by the end of 2018.

Q: Why was the Dayton area chosen as the focus for initial franchising?  
We live here, we know the market and the market generally follows the old adage, "If it will work here, it will work anywhere."

Q: What's your competition like in this area when it comes to fast casual and QSR pizza concepts in comparison to someplace like southern California? 
I can’t speak to Southern California as I don't spend much time there. However, I hear it has a number of competitors. Southwestern (and) central Ohio have very few competitors at this time. We have seen very little impact from any competitors and often hear customers state that they prefer our product over the competition.  

Q: How does the pizza-eating public differ in this region from those elsewhere in the nation?  
I do not think it is substantially different than other regions. Pizza is rated higher on the scale than any other food, but as to what percentage of the population eat it, I believe it is more than 95 percent. 

Q: How business then and what kinds of challenges have you faced with this chain?
We are blessed. We have very successful stores and are very excited about our future. As with all business, the biggest challenge is finding enough people with the same drive as we have. The labor pool is tight, and staffing is challenging. 

Q: Has Rapid Fired Pizza's leadership team been previously involved with other concepts that approach growth regionally and if so why?  
Most of our team grew up in the Subway system of Area Developers. That was successful for Subway (and other brands) and we carry on that model in Rapid Fired Pizza. … The restaurant industry requires lots of hard work and consistency. We are often working around the clock. While we have made it a point to have systems that are easily duplicated, it still takes work. 

"Success is generally hidden behind coveralls" is what a mentor once told me, I believe in that M.O. We do like multi-brand multi-unit operators because of their understanding of systems and they tend to be quick studies.

Q: Where do you go from here once you've reached market saturation, and how do you determine you've hit that point? 
We are already working on development deals nationwide. We expect to grow … by controlled rapid growth.

We expect to have stores open this year in Kentucky, Indiana, North (Carolina), South Carolina and probably Texas, based on our current development agreements and interest. I expect that Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Michigan will see Rapid Fired stores in 2018.

Q: Are pizza customers in this market showing the same inclination as those nationally to stay home more, eat more grocery-bought food and how does that work for or against your brand? 
All I can say is we have plenty of customers coming through the doors. Families seem to love Rapid Fired Pizza. 

Giving each family member the option of having whatever they want on their pizza sets us apart from many other restaurants. We have had great success with our online ordering program that we launched recently (and) we are constantly looking at ways to satisfy our customers' wants and needs. 

Our new No-Doh Pizza is a great example. It allows people cutting carbs or reducing their gluten intake to have a tasty option when eating out. We are excited about what we are doing. … We look to the future for a very interesting ride.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Health & Nutrition, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Operations Management, Staffing & Training

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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