Drive-thru is the next frontier for restaurants, especially pizza restaurants. As we reported earlier this week, brands like Pizza Hut are getting into the drive-thru game because of the mass exodus to the suburbs that during the pandemic. Convenience became key in the aftermath, and chains have had to adapt. That’s exactly what happened with Slice Factory in Berwyn, Ill.

Slice Factory was initially a family-owned restaurant that opened in 1998 when Dom DiDiana’s parents immigrated to the United States from Italy. DiDiana took over in 2013, rebranding the family chain with three locations to Slice Factory. The quick-service pizza chain now has 13 units across the Chicagoland area.

The reason for rebranding? Franchising opportunity.

“My father’s ultimate dream was to franchise,” DiDiana told Nation’s Restaurant News.

It took the growing brand four years to begin franchising, between legal documents and hoops to jump through. By the time they began to franchise, they had grown company units as well, adding another “five or six” locations.

In 2018, just as the brand was beginning to franchise, the building next door to the original Slice Factory became vacant. Bigger and flashier, this location could hold the chain’s corporate office and act as a larger format. The catch? The unit had a drive-thru.

DiDiana took a year to rebuild the location — and develop the Slice Thru, one of the nation’s first drive-thru pizzerias.

Before Pizza Hut began to nationally franchise drive-thrus, Slice Factory came around with their Slice Thrus, the first of which opened in 2019.

It wasn’t just documents that prevented the chain from franchising. DiDiana had to cut down the menu before allowing the chain to go national.

“I wanted to have a concept that focused on pizza, wings and salads,” said DiDiana. “What makes us unique is we take a 28-inch pizza, and we cut it into slices, and we sell that by the slice. Picture a slice of pizza about the size of your forearm. That’s what we’re known for.”

The slices, which are 18 inches, originated because DiDiana’s father wanted to be budget friendly as an immigrant, offering “affordable options for everyday people,” DiDiana says. The chain has had big pizzas since the ’90s.

“I can make a bigger pizza, but it won’t fit through the door,” DiDiana said. He said he’s had some issues at older homes with the pizza box fitting through the entryway.

The jumbo slices, however, are just part of the appeal of Slice Factory. All units moving forward will have a drive-thru.

When it comes to franchisees, DiDiana decided to look inward for his first group.

“When I first started franchising, the only ones who really believed in what I was doing were my teammates,” said DiDiana. “I figured, who else better to be a partner than the people who’ve been working with me the past 10 years […] So that’s how I got my first handful of franchisees.”

The chain just announced its plans to expand outside of the Chicagoland area to Indiana, the first location outside of Illinois for the regional chain that hopes to get to 100 units by 2030. Those locations will all be in the Midwest.

“I really want to be no more than a car drive away to support our franchisees as we grow,” he said. “That’s very important to us.”

It’s more than the drive-thru when it comes to advancements to enhance the customer experience.

The chain’s mobile app has just about 100,000 downloads.

“Once people like start using it, they use it two or three times, they use it forever, which is nice,” DiDiana said.

The chain is also experimenting with AI voice ordering for phone orders. Kiosks will be installed later this year across the chain.

In flashier news, Slice Factory is working with Nala Robotics to develop a fully automated pizza maker to the chain’s own specifications. The machine will be called Pizzaiolaä and can press and stretch dough, add the sauce, cheese and toppings, and cook, slice, and box the pizza without the aid of human employees.

“Because everything we do is so big, it’s not standard, so everything we do has to be custom-made for us,” he said. “So, it’s a good and a bad thing.”

The size doesn’t make the man, however, and Slice Factory is working to ensure the best experience for guests, including getting through the drive-thru in under three minutes. If the order only has a slice of pizza or pizza by the slice, the time goes down to a minute and 30 seconds.

While it’s a lot of grateful parents in the drive-thru, it’s also a big late-night business for Slice Factory. The dining room of the chain closes at night and the drive-thru remains open later to allow for more orders but keep staffing low.

Ultimately, DiDiana is living out his father’s dream to franchise the family-owned business. The chain is looking for franchising inquiries.