Chicago Tribune reporter Jessica Wohl discusses the abrupt close of HomeMade Pizza Company stores around the Chicagoland area.

HomeMade Pizza Co. has abruptly shut down its take-and-bake pizza stores.

The Chicago-based chain offered ready-to-bake pizzas made with local, fresh ingredients, pitting itself against competitors ranging from pizza restaurants to grocery stores. A company co-founder and a store manager confirmed the shutdown.

Efforts to reach Chicago-based HomeMade Pizza Co. and its officials on Monday were unsuccessful. Along with the closing of an estimated 22 retail outlets on Friday, HomeMade Pizza appears to have shut down its website.
The move comes after sales slipped last year at U.S. pizza establishments focused solely on take home and delivery, according to industry data.

The privately held chain was founded in 1997 by brothers-in-law Eric Fosse and Matthew Weinstein, who are no longer affiliated with the company.
Fosse sent an email about the closing to his friends, saying that HomeMade “will always occupy a special place in my heart.”

“After bringing in large outside investors several years ago, I was ready to step back and move into the next phase of my career. The investors brought in new leadership that we'd hoped would allow HomeMade to grow and prosper well into the future. Unfortunately for all involved, the strategy they embraced did not succeed,” Fosse wrote in the email, which he forwarded to the Tribune.

A general manager at a HomeMade Pizza in Chicago said that he learned about the closing in a phone call Friday from a superior. The general manager, who declined to be named, said he was told that the company's debt had built up too high for the investors' tastes.

Matthew Pritzker, an investor in the company, could not be reached for comment. It is not clear if Pritzker retained a stake at the time of the shutdown.

Fosse, the co-founder, said that he was sorry for the employees and customers. He said that he had still been a customer, getting the product weekly. He had not been with the company since early 2013 and is currently working on opening a restaurant in the West Loop, after opening Guildhall in Glencoe in 2013.

U.S. households spent an average of $307.20 per household on pizza in 2013, down from $308.30 per household in 2012, according to data from Euromonitor International.

Last year, sales slipped at U.S. pizza establishments focused solely on take home and delivery, according Euromonitor data. Sales at those locations fell 0.4 percent in 2013, to nearly $18.19 billion, after rising each year from 2010 to 2012.

Sales at various types of U.S. pizza restaurants rose just 0.6 percent to $37.55 billion in 2013. That marked a significantly slower pace than the 4.8 percent increase recorded for 2012, according to Euromonitor.

Other pizza-focused chains have been struggling. Sbarro filed for bankruptcy in March for the second time in three years as fewer people visit malls. Traditional pizza places are also on notice as fast-casual pizza restaurants, such as Blaze Pizza and Pizzeria Locale are popping up. Those concepts aim to make pizzas quickly, using very hot ovens, after patrons order.

The news was first reported by Crain's Chicago Business.

jwohl@tribune.com