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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Pizza Fusion
Pizza pie from Pizza Fusion

College buddies Michael Gordon and Vaughan Lazar started talking about opening a pizza restaurant in February 2006 and had their first Pizza Fusion open in Deerfield, Florida, five months later. After that they began franchising in February 2007 and now have 60 franchises sold in seven states. Their success makes it hard to believe they had no restaurant background, but for them, “being green” truly has been an asset.

“The cart came before the horse,” Lazar says. The friends were looking for a project to change people’s lives. “We always had talked about starting a business on the side together,” Lazar says. “We both had successful careers—Michael was in real estate and I was in marketing and advertising—so we wanted to do something that would really make a difference.”

Gordon was involved in environmental causes. Lazar was interested in organic food and frustrated with the lack of on-the-go options. The fusion of their interests became the cause. They chose pizza to spread their message, thinking it would be a stable and easy market to enter.

They didn’t plan for a rapid opening or expansion, but Lazar says the details just fell into place. “It really seemed like things were meant to happen.”

After seeing an announcement for the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas just a week before the event began, the pair met pizza industry consultant Big Dave Ostrander at the show. “We told him our idea, and when he got excited about it, we realized we were on to something special,” Lazar says. “He worked with us for two weeks and helped us with everything from recipes to negotiating vendor contracts that normally would take years to figure out.”

The first Pizza Fusion opened in July 2006 in just 850 square feet with seating on the sidewalk. A larger second store opened in March in Fort Lauderdale. Even larger third and fourth locations opened recently in Palm Beach Gardens and Weston, Florida. The standard footprint will be 2,000 square feet with seating for 40.

Pizza Fusion serves organic beer and wine, which creates an enjoyable upscale atmosphere. A lot of time went into choosing design elements, not just for the right look, but the right materials too.

Everything is environmentally friendly: from the seat cushions made from soybean oil to the recycled detergent bottle countertops.

The eco-friendly business plan reaches far beyond design. The company supports sustainable agriculture by serving a more than 98 percent organic menu. Restaurants offer discounts for returning pizza boxes to be recycled, and use utensils made from potatoes and containers made from cornstarch, both of which biodegrade in 30 days.

The building even meets the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (leed) certification standards created by the U.S. Green Building Council. Pizza Fusion is the first national chain to meet the standards and the Palm Beach Garden store was the first LEED-certified restaurant in Florida. Florida Governor Charlie Crist even showed his support by cutting the grand-opening ribbon.

Customers learn about the eco-friendly elements via informational plaques. The mission might help build the loyal following, but Lazar says without good pizza they won’t come back. “We worked with top consultants in the industry to develop our recipes using organic vegetables. This is food in its purest form, and the flavors are magnified that much more, making for a tastier pizza.”

Beyond the pizza, the organic menu also includes focaccia sandwiches, wraps, salads, desserts, and health-conscious alternatives, including gluten-free and vegan options, for customers with selective diets and food allergies.

The stores serve an average of 100 people a day between 11 a.m. and 10 or 11 p.m. with an average dine-in party check of $33 and an average take out check of $24.

Pizza Fusion
CEO: Vaughan Lazar
HQ: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Year started: 2006
Annual sales: N/A
Total units: 4
Franchise units: 4
Why it bears watching: “If you believe in something and do it right and with a conscience, the money will eventually follow,” Lazar says.
Lazar and Gordon started Pizza Fusion to make a positive impact in their community. They soon expect that community to stretch worldwide as they plan to open stores in the U.K. and Canada by the end of 2008. In five years they expect to have 150 stores open across the U.S. and abroad.
The plan started small. They didn’t consider franchising until a customer with franchise expertise convinced them to expand. That customer, Randy Romano, became their business partner and the team recently hired CB Richard Ellis to manage site selection nationally.
In thinking about the national and international markets that await, Lazar says they’re not focused on potential revenue but on more exposure for their business model. “People have to learn how to run businesses with a conscience. We’re leading by example.”