LeBron James loves pizza. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star loves it so much he was willing to walk away from a $15 million endorsement deal with McDonald’s to support his favorite pizza joint.
The Blaze Pizza chain may have started in Southern California just five years ago, but this week it opened its 200th shop in Ohio, making it the fastest-growing fast-food chain in history. It aims to be the Chipotle of pizza, incorporating an assembly-line process and quick cooking for lunch and dinnertime crowds. Fanning the flames of its success is James, who in 2011 invested an undisclosed amount of money in the venture, according to Crunchbase.
“I think for me, it was like, ‘Oh wow, we get to actually build this,’” James told the Uninterrupted podcast. “Forget the money, we could actually build something. And if it doesn’t become successful, then I can only blame myself.”
James proved his dedication in 2015, when he walked away from a reportedly $14-15 million deal with fast-food giant McDonald’s so that he could remain a part of Blaze’s marketing campaigns. And signs show the chain is gaining steam among consumers. A 2017 Harris Poll of pizza chains most-loved by consumers placed Blaze second only to Papa John’s. Pizza Hut came in third.
The company’s growth has also been hot, according to Forbes. Overall, sales for the chain clocked in at around $6 million in 2013. In 2016 that number has risen to $185 million, and the sales target this year is $285 million. Blaze’s tremendous success as the first pizza shop to succeed along the assembly-line, fast-casual restaurant path, means burrito chains and sandwich shops better watch their backs.
After all, as James pointed out when discussing his primary reasons for investing in the business to begin with: “Who doesn’t like pizza?”