Dallas-based Peter Piper Pizza learned a great deal about itself during the thick of COVID.
As a predominantly dine-in concept known for buffets, birthday parties, and a full suite of games, the pizza chain found strength in its off-premises offering. Customer response proved just how much brand affinity had grown over 50 years in the Southwest, particularly Arizona. A bankruptcy early into the pandemic—which allowed the company to eliminate more than $700 million in debt—didn’t change those facts.
“We’re like, ‘There is something magical about this brand that we can extend,’” says David McKillips, CEO of CEC Entertainment, parent of Peter Piper Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese.
The line of thought led to the opening of off-premises-only Peter Piper Express earlier this year. The initial unit is just 1,300 square feet, 15 percent the size of the legacy eatertainment box. Two are open in Phoenix, and a third recently debuted in Tucson, Arizona. The express concept will be used to infill existing markets.
Between larger party venues and streamlined takeout/delivery stores is a hole, and the brand is filling that void with new, fast casual Peter Piper Pizzeria. The first iteration, debuting in February, will be an inline, 2,500-square-foot location in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. A larger, 4,500-square-foot unit will open about 60–90 days later in Kansas City proper. It will be stationed near a high-traffic mall and share space with Torchy’s Tacos and Hawaiian Bros. Each store will have 40–60 seats in the dining room, arcade games, big TVs, and a mural wall painted by local artist, Chance Hunter. The chain expects takeout and delivery to remain a large part of business, so the restaurant will be laid out in a way that separates pickup customers and drivers from the dine-in experience.
In addition to Kansas City, Peter Piper Pizza explored more than two dozen other markets to place its new fast-casual operation. However, the Midwest city proved victorious due to its cost of entry, growth trajectory, and sports following, McKillips says.
“As we look at the ambiance of the pizzeria with the TVs playing sports, with the great demographics, the areas that we’re going into, the attractive real estate prices, the attractive media cost to go into that market—we landed in a place that we think is a great market for us to not only test, but it’s a good transient city as well,” McKillips says. “This brand is going to travel out of there and you get a lot of tastes from different cities around the country that are landing in Kansas City. We think it’s a great place. Not too far out of Kansas City is the birthplace of the pan pizza. So what a great place for us to come in and measure ourselves.”
“Now that we have done all of the R&D and come up with three concepts that could be very successful for any market, we’ll help [franchisees] develop and we’ll help them go into the market and introduce Peter Piper Pizza, starting in the Southwest U.S.,” says David McKillips, Peter Piper Pizza CEO.
The pizzas are cooked by a custom-built Roto-Flex stone-fire oven that heats up to Peter Piper Pizza’s desired range of 500 to 550 degrees. It can also bake 200 pizzas each hour. The equipment is being used in both express and eatertainment units, and McKillips says feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, all future restaurants will use the oven going forward. When Peter Piper Pizza opens in Olathe, it will be the first Roto-Flex oven in the market.
“You’re moving it from the lower tier all the way up to the top, and it fully cooks the crust,” McKillips says. “And then at the top, you’ve got the heat there and it’s crisping up the pizza both on our pan and our hand-tossed, which gives us a real signature crunch and a great flavor.”
Peter Piper Pizza has 96 U.S. locations across Arizona (42), California (one), New Mexico (six), and Texas (47). The portfolio of formats will be used to unlock growth in more markets across the country and meet changing consumer needs. This is true of the eatertainment restaurants too. Peter Piper Pizza recently launched its funpass, which allows customers to buy game cards from a kiosk. Additionally, the chain released a new loyalty program and app in the summer.
McKillips expects demographics of each restaurant to remain relatively the same. In Arizona, the express stores and the eatertainment venues are bringing in similar customers, but there’s been no cannibalization. The pizzeria may see different guests because of its high-traffic real estate profiles, but at the core, all of them are simply “servicing families who love pizza.”
After measuring operational efficiencies for the express and fast casual models, the concepts will eventually be brought to franchisees. The end goal would be to sign multi-unit operators that would bring all three versions into a market. In preliminary discussions thus far, franchisees have shown much interest and are continuing to monitor performance of the express units.
“Now that we have done all of the R&D and come up with three concepts that could be very successful for any market, we’ll help them develop and we’ll help them go into the market and introduce Peter Piper Pizza starting in the Southwest U.S. And then growing out there where we have such strength and brand awareness,” McKillips says.