With annual sales averaging $38.5 billion, the pizza industry is rolling in the dough, pumping out delicious pies as fast as convection and conveyor-belt style ovens can cook them to a golden brown. And there are plenty of pizzerias to choose from. According to PMQ Pizza Magazine, there are over 73,000 pizza stores around the country, approximately 40 percent of which are franchise-owned.  Second only to hamburgers, pizza restaurateurs occupy a huge slice of the market, and many people point to the utensil-free favorite as the meal they could eat daily and never tire of.

But there’s more to the pizza phenomenon than meets the eye. In fact, now that millennials comprise the nation’s largest generation, 18- to 35-year-olds may reshape the industry as we know it, according to CNBC.

Traditionally, when people order a plain cheese or one piled with pepperoni, they phone in their requests for the kitchen staff to put together. However, build-your-own pizza is gaining notoriety in light of the fast-casual train that’s sweeping the country. CNBC reported that sales volume in the fast-casual segment last year increased by 11.4 percent, citing analysis from Technomic, two times the rate of 2014.

Expecting the trend to intensify, restaurateur Brian Petruzzi has expanded his fast-casual franchise by leaps and bounds, opening more than two dozen Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants around the country, including several in the northeast, southeast and southwest.

x_0_0_0_14102352_800Restaurants are including customers in on the dish creation process, a task that’s traditionally left to the chef.

Making customers the ‘chefs’
Petruzzi told the cable news network that customers desire to be in on the pizza creation process as closely as possible, but still leave the actual cooking and slicing to the experts.

“Customers want a lot more input into what they’re getting,” Petruzzi explained. “They want to see that the ingredients are fresh, and they want to be able to customize and make stuff their own. A lot of it is millennial-based. They like having control.”

Acknowledging that diners first eat with their eyes, restaurateurs are drawing millennials to their establishments by spiffing up their interiors and making menu items match how they appear in advertisements.

“We have an ultra-competitive restaurant environment right now,” Jay Hafemeister, a franchisee in Colorado Springs for a popular national hamburger chain, told The Gazette. “You’ve got the better-burger segments, you’ve got a lot of competitors out there. So, you need to make sure that your facility meets the expectations of today’s guests.”

Understanding that eat-and-go consumers enjoy taking care of their own dinner choices when it’s convenient for them to do so, Petruzzi told CNBC that his restaurant has installed self-serve beer stations where diners can draw from the tap themselves.

Fast-casual growth poised to swell further
Restaurateurs in the fast-casual segment have their work cut out for them if they want to draw clientele to their business, as the industry has exploded. Citing figures from Technomic, PMC Pizza Magazine reported that 55 percent of consumers buy pizza from a fast-casual restaurant on a monthly basis. Additionally, referencing predictions from Telsey Advisory Group, some 2,000 fast-casual stores nationwide are expected to open their doors between now and 2020.

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