Brandon Grady estimates he's made about 550,000 pizzas in his lifetime, and he recently moved from Michigan to Tennessee to make some more.
He's opening new restaurants in Chattanooga for Jet's Pizza, a fast-growing chain based in Sterling Heights, Mich., and he says he'll make about 150 pizzas per day here with his own hands.
Jet's Pizza already has 13 stores in Nashville and two in Knoxville, Grady said, and the company recently opened its first Chattanooga store on Hixson Pike to compete in the under-served Chattanooga market.
"Basically, we want to be in this state, and we were interested in both Chattanooga and Memphis," he said.
Company executives decided to first focus on Chattanooga, and will open two more stores here, including one in the Hamilton Place area and one in Ooltewah.
The Chattanooga expansion is part of a growth spurt at Jet's Pizza. The chain saw its sales grow 13.2 percent in 2009 while much of the industry was mired in a recession, said co-founder Eugene Jetts.
The business expanded its number of stores to 205 from 164 in 2008, Jetts said, thanks to the popularity of Jet's square pizza pies.
Top pizzerias by national sales, 2009
1. Pizza Hut $5 billion down 9.1%
2. Domino's Pizza $3.03 billion down 0.2%
3. Papa John's $2.06 billion up 1.1%
4. Little Caesars $1.13 billion up 7.1%
5. Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza $630 million up 7.7%
6. CiCi's Pizza $573 million down 2.1%
7. Sbarro $517 million down 5.2%
8. Chuck E. Cheese's $437 million down 0.8%
9. Round Table Pizza $390 million down 7.1%
10. Godfather's Pizza $331 million down 0.5%
17. Jet's Pizza $149 million up 13.2%
Source: PMQ Pizza Magazine
"It's the taste of the pizza, our quality" that keeps customers coming back, Jetts said. "The square pizza is our forte; that's what's making us grow."
When Jetts founded the company in 1978, "you could only get a good-tasting pie like that in two or three restaurants in Michigan," he said. "That's how we developed it, and we stuck to our guns and it worked."
Using restaurant-quality ingredients adds to the cost of doing business, he said, but the company makes up for it by placing stores in high-traffic areas.
"We're geared for volume, and honestly if we don't get it we're in trouble," Jetts said.
Fortunately for Jet's Pizza, Americans ate about $36 billion worth of pizza in 2009 and show no signs of stopping, according to PMQ Pizza Magazine, trade publication for the industry.
Tennessee has room for expansion, with fewer pizza parlors per customer than most states, the trade publication said. The state has about 5,808 consumers per store, which is below average, while New York, with 3,939 customers per store, is average, and New Hampshire, with 2,943 customers per store, has an above-average concentration of stores.
This makes Tennessee ripe for the picking, Grady said, especially since Jet's carves out its niche by marketing itself in the upper echelon of pizza restaurants.
"We make all our dough in-house, nobody else does that," he said. Grady and his 15 employees make the pizza sauce and dough fresh every day, Grady said, and even the cheese is "restaurant quality."
"Our mozzerella is probably the best mozzarella," added Jetts. "The cost is ungodly, but we still use it."
Customers Dylan Warren and Danielle Warren, both trying Jet's Pizza for the first time last week, said between mouthfuls that the pizza registered high on the taste meter.
"It's very good," said Dylan, who could barely stop chewing to talk. "Mmmmm."
The company will move to compete against market leaders Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, Papa John's and Little Caesars.
Indigo Ramey, a manager at Domino's on Hixson Pike, said Jet's had "pretty good pizza."
However, she noted that "Domino's is more well known than Jet's, so that's going to give us an edge. [Jet's] will do good, but I don't know if it will turn into anything amazing."
"We appreciate healthy competition," said Ashley Giannamore, a spokeswoman for Pizza Hut. "We're happy to have them because it makes us improve our customer service a little more."
Jet's Pizza is a "pretty aggressive group," she added. "They seem to be expanding pretty fast."
Contact Ellis Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ ellisthered.