At a time when buffet-style restaurant chains are struggling to survive, a few have successfully taken a slice of the market. Chains such as CiCi's Pizza, Pizza Inn and Mr. Gatti's seem to be thriving based on the all-you-can-eat offerings of pizza, pasta and salad.
CiCi's president Craig Moore said the company's success stems from its core concept of a low-cost meal paired with star-quality customer service. Since 2005, CiCi's has opened approximately 150 locations and the company is on track to open another 50 to 80 in 2008.
"The buffet pizza business is growing," Moore said.
In less than two years, the company has received 10,000 franchisee inquiries. While the number of inquiries does not equal the same number of locations, the high rate of queries shows CiCi's executives they've carved an industry position.
"We kind of own the chain dine-in element. That's where our niche is," Moore said.
Low prices vs. quality ingredients
For chains such as CiCi's and Pizza Inn, a low-cost product doesn't necessarily mean low-quality ingredients.
"Pizza Inn's thing is always the quality of our product," said franchisee Larry Rust. "All of the pizza doughs are made in-house and we don't skimp on any of our products."
Rust, who operates a Pizza Inn location in Paducah, Ky., said the company's focus wasn't always on the buffet model; the chain started to host a lunch buffet once a week in the 1980s, which grew in popularity and ultimately became a daily offering.
"It was really successful and generated traffic and revenue, which got the ball rolling on buffet," he said. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that if you wanted to have a restaurant you needed to give (customers) what they wanted."
Rust's location touts the buffet model seven days a week, "which is something I never would have dreamed of," he said.
Just like Pizza Inn, CiCi's hasn't skimped on quality because of its lower price point.
The company's pizzas have a 25-minute shelf life, so each customer gets the same dine-in experience. The chain's focus on service also contributes to customer satisfaction, Moore said.
But issues remain, especially when it comes to consumer perceptions about what "buffet" means.
"First, they're thinking, 'It's got to be terrible, but it what's we can afford so we're going,'" Moore said. "We considered taking buffet out of our vernacular because of the negativity of it, but we found our core guest gets it. The reality is people who use our concept are looking for value with service."
The parent trap
Product value is one of several reasons why customers have flocked to buffet pizza chains despite an overall lack of interest in buffet on the part of consumers.
"I think most buffet-style chains are struggling," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago's Technomic Information Services. "CiCi's is really pushing the buffet concept and they have a fun atmosphere. Chuck E. Cheese has a salad bar but not a pizza bar, and Mr. Gatti's is very much oriented toward gaming."
Tristano said consumers can identify with buffet chains because of the value and family atmosphere they offer.
"You have to go back and say how many people use us because of the low price," Moore said. "When competitors are at $10 per head, and we're at $5, (consumers) likely are going to choose pizza."
CiCi's targets the "stretched parent," who is stretched for time and dollars.
"Service across America has gotten so bad, whatever element of service you can keep in there, it can separate us from the rest of the pack," Moore said.
Pizza Inn also focuses on the customer-service elements of its locations. In 2006, Rust invested in the total renovation of his location.
Pizza Inn locations historically were dark in design with limited natural light in the dining room.
"We were seen by consumers as outdated," Rust said of Pizza Inn restaurants. "Research told us customers thought (the dining room) was crowded where the buffet was and the variety wasn't what they were looking for."
Rust's location underwent a renovation and a back-fed buffet was added along with more windows and a brighter color scheme. Since the renovation, Rust said his location has run a year-over-year sales increase since 2006.
Thirty-eight Pizza Inn locations are updating their look, including the additions of back-fed buffets.
The sales growth at his location is a "combination of adding the buffet and re-imaging the restaurant," Rust said. "I think it was the best move we ever made."