With hundreds of locations opened since it was founded in 2012, it was only a matter of time until Blaze Pizza made a power play for a celebrity spokesperson. Maybe a talk radio personality, or a supporting character from a sitcom, or even a freshly retired Los Angeles sports figure. What’s Brent Barry up to these days? But no one expected them to go and steal LeBron James, who Forbes named the single most valuable athlete on the planet in 2014, from the golden clutches of McDonald’s.
According to a report from ESPN, King James is choosing not to renew his multi-million-dollar deal with the Golden Arches to instead lend his name and likeness to the Pasadena-based Blaze Pizza. Why? The fact that he owns at least ten percent of the company and has deals in the works to own franchises in Chicago and Miami might be a small part of it.
And even though McDonald’s yearly earnings still crush everyone else in the food business, they have recently been bleeding cash and losing the PR war against healthier chains like Chipotle, Panera, and LeBron’s new favorite pizza shop. 2015 was the first year in history where McDonald’s had to close more U.S. stores than it opened. On the other hand, Blaze Pizza—founded by Rick and Elise Wetzel (of the pretzel fame)—took the number two spot in Fast Casual’s 2015 list of 100 Movers and Shakers. Much like his initial move to Miami, LeBron’s just going with the winning team here.
The term “the Chipotle of X” has been egregiously overused as a marketing platitude trying to lure Millennials away from Taco Bell—but Blaze really is poised to be the Chipotle of the pizza world. Both restaurants have a clean and modern design, they espouse the importance of wholesome and unprocessed ingredients, and both rely on that hypercustomizable assembly line model that Subway somehow failed to make cool. It doesn’t hurt that Blaze uses an 800 degree oven and churns out quality thin-crust pizzas in less than 3 minutes.
They’re certainly not the only fast-casual pizza chain trying to copy the assembly line model. Blaze faces stiff competition from the likes of M.O.D. Pizza, Pieology, 800 Degrees, PizzaRev, and even the Chipotle-backed Pizzeria Locale. But, none of those chains have a four-time NBA MVP on their team.