For more than 15 years, Fuel Pizza has built a business selling chicken wings and slices of pizza.
Now the company is hoping to change that model with the introduction — and looming expansion — of Custom Fuel Pizza and Salads, a fast-casual concept that debuted about a year ago on Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Its third area location, in Dupont Circle, opened last week and executives say they are looking for more storefronts in the Washington area.
“Companies like Chipotle have really changed peoples’ thinking,” said Zach Current, co-founder of Custom Fuel. “Fast-casual has made a push. People have gotten used to saying, ‘This is what I want, this is how I want it — and I want it now.’ ”
Instead of reheating already-baked slices of pizza, new technology allows small-scale bakeries such as Custom Fuel to bake individual-sized pizzas in less than three minutes, Current said.
“I’ve been in the pizza-by-the-slice business most of my adult life, and it’s a tough business,” the 38-year-old said. “We went back to the drawing board and said, ‘How can we make this more exciting?’ ”
The solution: Allow customers to choose exactly what they want — crust, sauce, toppings, cheese — and deliver within minutes.
“The more we thought about it, the more we realized it was a no-brainer,” Current said.
Custom Fuel, which is based in Charlotte but has executives in Washington and New York, isn’t the only company seeking to do this locally. &pizza, which has a similar model, opened its first location in the H Street corridor in 2012. Today it has eight locations including restaurants in Germantown, Bethesda and Brookland.
The start-up investment for each Custom Fuel location is in the six-figures, Current said. Even so, he said those costs are about 35 percent less than for a traditional Fuel restaurant, which requires extra pizzeria-style seating and ventilation for cooking the chicken wings.
For its first location, Custom Fuel looked to an office building at 1747 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Five months later, the company transformed a storefront in a former Wonder Bread factory near Howard University into its second location.
“That cost a small fortune,” Current said, adding that the building had no electricity or plumbing before Custom Fuel took over.
Its most recent location, in a former Potbelly Sandwich Shop on Connecticut Ave. NW, took about three months to get off the ground.
The company is seeking additional spots throughout the Washington area, including storefronts in downtown D.C., as well as Bethesda, Silver Spring, Arlington and Alexandria. The company is in talks with The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, Union Station and area airports, Current said.
“In Washington, we’re looking for high-walking traffic areas,” Current said, adding that Custom Fuel locations are typically between 1,700 and 2,400 square feet. “We want to have high visibility in the city.”
In all, Current said he thinks there is room for at least 20 Custom Fuel locations in the District, and another 20 in the surrounding metropolitan area.
“We’ve gotten great feedback so far,” Current said. “This is what people want.”