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PizzaFire opens downtown, aims to kindle expansive franchise




While PizzaFire opened rather quietly yesterday at 236 Euclid Avenue on Public Square, Engage! Cleveland is hosting an event tonight at 5:30 to formally kick off the new fast-casual pizza venture (see details below).
 
The 2,500-square-foot downtown location, which seats 70, marks the second venture in what company officials hope to grow into a thriving franchise. The other PizzaFire location opened last October at 22 East Exchange Street in Akron. A third is slated to open next month in Cuyahoga Falls. Sean Brauser is the founder of PizzaFire and of the established Romeo's Pizza, which boasts 34 locations throughout Ohio.
 
Sean Brauser, PizzaFire founder"He really is a pizza genius," says Ryan Rao, the company's director of franchise sales. "He's very well recognized for his pizza creativity," he adds, citing a host of awards and accolades that Brauser has garnered for his pies and a 2005 appearance on the Food Network's $10,000 Pizza Challenge.
 
In the spirit of fast casual, PizzaFire customers can watch staff build their pie as they choose from six sauces (think spicy marina to ranch bacon) and a host of toppings. The 12 meat options include chorizo, free-range chicken and Tuscan pepperoni among others and the 17 veggie toppings range from standards such as black olives and green pepper to arugula and sundried tomato. After they're topped, pies are ready in just three minutes courtesy of an 800-degree domed brick pizza oven, the deck of which rotates.
 
"No one else in the fast casual pizza industry has this oven," says Rao, adding that he feels it gives PizzaFire's pies a superior result and an edge over the competition.
 
The company sees these first efforts as kindling for a project they hope catches fire across the Midwest and beyond.
 
"It's very wide open regarding who can truly become the Chipotle of pizza,'" says Rao, adding that there are just a handful of players on the fast casual pizza scene such as Pieology, 800 Degrees and Blaze Pizza. They are largely focused on the West Coast.
 
The company has plans in the works for up to seven more PizzaFire openings this year and is actively seeking franchise partners. For the bigger picture, however, Rao is courting venture capital dollars.
 
"We want to build out the Midwest with 100 units in six years," he says, adding of the timeframe, "it sometimes takes a while for these sexy new concepts from the West Coast to come to the Midwest."
 
Rao says the proven longevity and track record of Romeo's, which did $22 million in sales last year and employs 700 across Ohio, along with Brauser's reputation, will fuel the ambitious concept. Organic and non-GMO ingredients further define the brand, as do live hydroponic vegetables grown via Indoor Gardens' systems at the sites.
 
"When you walk into PizzaFire, you'll see lettuce growing in our cooler," he says, noting that leaves are harvested just minutes before a customer's salad is tossed. Servers also pluck leaves from a live basil plant to dress a pizza right before serving. "You can't get any fresher."
 
Rao describes the experience as visual and fun and is anxious to introduce it to the area, which the team has called home ever since Brauser opened the first Romeo's in 2001 in Medina, where the corporate headquarters are today.
 
"We look forward to sharing it with our local community because we're Northeastern Ohio people just like our customers."
 
Tonight from 5:30 to 8 p.m., Engage! Cleveland will host a business panel, tour of the new Downtown PizzaFire and a pizza tasting. The panel discussion will focus on entrepreneurship, market research and (of course) pizza. In addition, each attendee will receive a PizzaFire voucher valued at $8.50 for redemption at a later date. Tickets are $10. Registration and event details are available here. If any tickets remain, they will be for sale at the door.

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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