Chipotle Mexican Grill, leader of the "fast-casual" food trend, earlier this year sneakily planted a seed that could grow into an enormous, delicious pizza tree. Without so much as a press release, it financed the opening of Pizzeria Locale, a Denver pizza restaurant that uses a similar kitchen model to turn pizza into Chipotle-like fast food.

Chipotle, which last year made $2.5 billion in revenue, makes higher-quality-than-you-might-think Mexican food like burritos and taco salads at fast food speeds. But Chipotle is not alone. This "fast casual" category, which promises better atmosphere, higher quality food, and higher prices than usual fast food, has proved viable for many types of foods, from burgers, to salads, to even Chinese food. Pizza, which has been slow to catch on, is thought to be the next frontier. The Wall Street Journal:

[Pizza is] a growing part of the American diet. About 75 percent of people report having had pizza once in a two-week period, up from 66 percent in 2003, according to NPD Group, a market-research firm. The younger the eaters, the more likely they are to choose it, according to the data. [The Wall Street Journal]

The fast food crowd seems well aware of the potential. The Rick and Elise Wetzel, founders of Wetzel's Pretzels, recently opened Blaze Pizza, and plan to expand to 150 stores by the end of this year. The former president of Moe's Southwest Grill, assembled "an executive team with 50 combined years of franchise experience" to launch Maddio's Pizza Joint in 2009. They're just two of a rash of businesses trying to build a fast casual pizza empire, says QSR Magazine.

So, with all the competition, why is Chipotle investing in this one little Pizzeria Locale? Much like Chipotle, the restaurant offers 10 signature pizzas, but specializes in a choose-your-own topping option that allows customers more freedom. But this is not California Pizza Kitchen. Pizzeria Locale has a secret weapon: It uses a special kind of oven to bake individual pies in less than two minutes flat. Typically, it can take up to fifteen minutes to cook a pizza — and while Neapolitan pizzerias are far faster, they use highly trained chefs to work the brick ovens. So that kind of speed without the high labor cost has the potential to be revolutionary for fast food. Plus, Locale's high quality ingredients and nice decor are right up Chipotle's alley.

"Opening Pizzeria Locale using a model similar to Chipotle allows us to make extraordinary pizza, made with high-quality ingredients accessible to everyone," said Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, in a release.

Sounds like it could be a win in the "fast casual" sector — as long as pizza vending machines don't catch on.