Can Smashburger's former CEO put Pie Five back on positive path?

| by S.A. Whitehead
Can Smashburger's former CEO put Pie Five back on positive path?

The last few years have been tough for Rave Restaurant Group, which owns Pie Five and Pizza Inn. The group in September 2016, reported a net loss of $8.9 million — $7 million greater than the previous year. Smashburger's former CEO, Scott Crane, however, stepped into the corner office this week and has big plans to pull the brand out of the red.

"I truly believe there is untapped potential in both brands which really excites me about this new opportunity," Crane said in an interview with this website. "As CEO, I plan to continue driving the momentum of both the Pie Five and Pizza Inn brands and take them both to the next evolution of their growth. There is a lot of excitement around new initiatives at both brands."

Although the chain has been without a permanently appointed leader since June when Randy Gier stepped down, it hasn't been biding its time. Just a few weeks ago, Pie Five initiated drive-thru capabilities at two units. And both pizza brands have begun digital ordering, while future plans include opening Pie Five's first airport-based location, where that brand will offer its first breakfast items. 

The brand is counting on those changes and Crane's leadership to turn it around this year. Afer all, he's the guy, who in just 10 years at the helm of Smashburger, helped take that brand from two locations to more than 340, when he left the Denver-based chain last spring. 

As he officially started his new duties in Texas this week, Crane took a moment to answer some questions about where he intends to start his work at Rave and what makes him believe so strongly in these two very different pizza brands. 

Q: Do you see similarities that you might draw on from the fast casual burger world, as you take over leadership of this fast casual pizza world concept in Pie Five?
A: Much like the better burger space was a few years ago, the fast casual pizza space is really starting to gain traction. This is a pivotal time in the growth of Pie Five, and I look forward to being part of it. 

Burgers are the largest fast casual segment, but pizza is second. Smashburger grew from two locations to over 300 during my tenure, so I understand an aggressive growth strategy in an emerging category. There are many similarities to where Smashburger was a few years ago and Pie Five's growth, so I think there's a great opportunity for Pie Five. That's going to take a laser focus around innovation, education, communication and consistency in operations.

"I'm still young enough that I still have a little fire in my belly and I enjoy doing this."


Q: Where do you see these brands heading under your leadership?
I'm a big fan of both brands.There is definitely a niche for both brands. I actually grew up eating at the Pizza Inn buffet in Kansas City. I understand the nostalgia associated with that brand and love the pizza! Pizza Inn is "America's Hometown Pizza Place" and we are opening new locations, adding new menu items and rolling out a new rewards program — not bad for an almost 60-year-old brand.

While Pizza Inn thrives in small towns, Pie Five is perfect for the suburban family or quick lunch consumer looking for a fresh, fast and completely made-to-order pizza. As they are poised to open their 100th location next month, Pie Five continues to expand across the country while adding innovative new products to the mix.

Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges for these two brands in today's market?
For Pie Five – it's same store sales and AUV (average unit volume). We're going to tackle that first because that's the biggest challenge there and the biggest one or two strategies around that are education for the consumerbecause, while pizza is a large category, 80+ percent of the business is at night and/or delivered. So it's educating consumers who all love fast casual as a new way to eat pizza … but didn't maybe realize that you can get great pizza made fresh in five minutes. … So, "in and out, on my lunch hour."… Also for Pie Five, we'll be looking at drive-thru … and delivery. … Then, at Pizza Inn — which is really a legacy brand — just to keep doing what they're doing well, but maybe with some new design elements and getting some energy behind that  brand as well with new growth. 

Q: What do you see as the most important factors at play in fast casual pizza business this year, and how does that affect Pie Five and what the brand has to offer? 
In the fast casual segment, there are a lot of pizza companies out there and, like when I started at Smashburger, most of them are still very regional. We (Pie Five) are among the larger ones, like the second largest, which was the position we were in at Smashburger, 

So now you're tackling a $70 million segment … (where) people are saying, 'We're spending our dollars in fast casual and pizza,' and in that segment, Pie Five has a broader menu variety. Plus, we have four crusts, lots of toppings, desserts — unlike others — and beer and wine and salad offerings. So, though there are a lot of players, just like in the burger segment, they will either shake out or many of them will stay very regional, and Pie Five will differentiate itself in the segment. 

Q: Do you have any guiding thoughts on the keys to success in food service and leadership within this industry? 
In a restaurant company basically, you have to build a great team, and you've got to have great franchise partners. And then, in the end, you have to have a product that resonates with consumers, while staying focused on innovation with food, and then do it well every day. 

You can't market your way through all that and … on any of those, there's no magic bullet. First, (the product) has to be relevant to the consumer, which is why we're in pizza. This is a big, big segment we're tapping into and fast casual is also a very big segment. But, in the end, it's about putting a great team together and selling a great product, then making sure you have the right partners who can execute it.

Q: You're 43, with 30 years of experience in this business, so you must like what you do. Why?

A: I started washing dishes when I was 12. I was a manager at a very young age, and I worked with lots of great entrepreneurs. Throughout my career and the 30 years I've been in this business, I've gotten to where I really enjoy developing a great team with a great product and seeing people succeed and the brand succeed. And also, I'm still young enough that I still have a little fire in my belly and I enjoy doing this."

Cover photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage

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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