As far as finance goes, Brad Reynolds is steeped in the restaurant industry. He most recently served as COO of ghost kitchen operator C3, and before that, spent four years as CFO and senior vice president of franchise strategy at Smashburger.
But he left the ghost kitchen space, which is poised to enter the mainstream after the pandemic, for Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza, a fast-casual chain with more than 340 restaurants in 38 states and six countries, and plans to add several more.
“I’ve heard a lot about Blaze, in terms of their significant investors, their private equity ownership structure, and every level of the brand from a product execution standpoint,” Reynolds told CFO Dive. “The brand has had a good reputation across the industry for years. After spending some time with the executive team, I learned quickly that the rumors were true: it’s a high quality product with a great leadership team.”
Unlike many fast casual chains, Blaze is in the midst of continued material growth. Amid the pandemic, it launched curbside carryout, expanded its delivery operations, added DIY pizza kits and opened its first drive-thru location. Reynolds said it’s poised to emerge from COVID-19 bigger than ever.
“That’s what we’re all here to do, and my role is to be central to partnering with the CEO to really drive that growth, and make sure, strategically, we have all the pieces in place and be successful in where we grow,” he said.
Before being promoted to CEO and president in November 2019, Mandy Shaw spent a year and a half as Blaze’s CFO.
“Having a former CFO as your CEO was really attractive to me,” Reynolds told CFO Dive in an interview Wednesday. “It’s an opportunity to be a pure strategy person.”
The Blaze brand is a “great segment” within fast casual, Reynolds said. “It’s really resonating with people now; it’s the perfect product, and the perfect executable occasion for people.”
Coming out of a challenging era, Reynolds sees a great deal of ambiguity paired with great opportunities.
“Ghost kitchens are great, and they’ll be part of the equation going forward,” he said. “But they’re only as good as the brand associated with them.” Without consumer awareness and affinity for the product, any restaurant will fade, he said.
As for real estate, Reynolds is optimistic, and Blaze is making the bet.
“We all have to assume the world will get back to normal, hopefully sooner than later,” he said. “We have a high degree of confidence on-premises dining will be back and better than ever.”
Where it’s allowed, Reynolds said Blaze is seeing “an insane amount” of on-premises dining. “People are just craving experiences right now,” he said. “We’re seeing really robust numbers across the industry. Blaze is an upscale pizza occasion, which many people fell in love with.”
Blaze’s digital growth throughout 2020 was “insane,” Reynolds said. Now, the challenge and opportunity is maintaining as much of that digital loyalty as possible, while also expanding in-person.
“We’re focused on getting people back in our restaurants,” he said. “And then, to come full circle, we know people will keep craving experiences, probably more than ever, in terms of the high quality staples they love: pizza, America’s favorite food.”
Blaze falls “dead in the middle” of that demand, Reynolds said, which means that continuing to grow its franchise community and store base, and innovating with new real estate opportunities like drive-through lanes and pick-up windows, makes perfect sense.
The brand is focused on being opportunistic in its growth, he added, saying it’s focused on more digital off-premises units with smaller real estate footprints.
The growth strategy to come will not be traditional multi-unit, he said, but more innovative, allowing for the same experience, maybe in a different format.
As it fills out its C-suite, Blaze is not hiring a chief strategy officer; strategy will mainly fall to Reynolds.
“I’m a strategic leader who understands not just this brand, but also the behind-the-scenes, peel-back-the-curtain view of corporate performance,” he said. “Someone who gets the entire C-suite, and brings a financial strategic lens to decision-making. I want to partner with all our business unit leaders and help them grow towards their priorities.”
But it won’t be easy, even though the brand has a “tremendous opportunity” emerging from a tough year.
“We’ve maintained a pretty impressive level of performance system wide,” he said. “We can take advantage of a lot of new opportunities, and new emerging demand, and really expand upon what we’ve built. My job is to be the point person to help."