CEO working to make Sbarro 'preeminent fast casual brand'

Sbarro CEO Jim Greco is somewhat of a turnaround specialist.

Honing his skills at Bruegger's, which he joined in the early 2000s, Greco led the chain to more than 20 consecutive quarters of positive same-store sales growth. Under his leadership, Bruegger's revamped its products and positioning, yielding positive results.

As the newly appointed CEO of struggling pizza chain Sbarro, Greco is faced with a similar task. Sbarro emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the fall and needs an executive leader who can capitalize on its potential.

Greco plans to do at Sbarro what he did for Bruegger's: establish and build sales and unit growth, reconnect with customers, and re-engage staff.

PizzaMarketplace caught up with Greco last week at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, where he detailed his ambitious plans for the iconic brand, which dates back to 1956. Those plans will focus on four initiatives – people, place, product and positioning.

Specifically, Greco said the goal is for Sbarro to become the "preeminent Italian fast casual brand worldwide."

"Our strategy for getting it back on track is to focus on those things. And you have to begin with a vision," he said. "Sbarro is an iconic brand with lots of potential and because of having too much leverage over the last few years, the brand hasn't been able to focus on the things it needed to focus on."

While the strategy will take a couple of years to implement, the company is currently testing initiatives on a short term, 100-day plan. The initiatives will be showcased in 10 units throughout the country beginning in June.

Product: Sbarro is working to change its pizza, pasta and sauce recipes. It also is making procedural changes to the way pizzas and pastas are cooked.

For example, Greco said the company is working on a made-to-order pasta that cooks in 45 seconds through either an induction cooktop or fast boiler.

"So you can choose your pasta, choose your sauce and in 45 seconds, you'll have fresh, made-to-order pasta. That with the pizza are big changes to our product line," Greco said.

People: Sbarro is currently "creating a culture of hospitality" at Sbarro. Greco said the team is training how to recruit, hire, train and empower employees throughout the system, as well as how to recognize and reward employees for creating a memorable experience for guests.

Place: Sbarro has locations in 40 countries and Greco said there are a handful of markets where the brand will enter or expand. India is slated for expansion, while Brazil and China are two key markets for entry.

"The markets we're looking to expand into at this point are China and Brazil, and some parts of Europe where we have a hole in the network," he said.

Positioning: Sbarro hired a firm that specializes in brand positioning. Three brand positions are currently testing in focus groups and one will be chosen soon that will represent "the way we speak to the public and inform them about product initiatives," Greco said.

Sbarro also has hired a design firm that is working on a "next generation" design for the concept.

Watch the video interview with Greco here.

President's panel

Also during the NRA Show, Greco joined Jimmy John Liautaud, CEO and Founder of Jimmy John's, and Craig Culver, CEO, Culver Franchising System, for a president's panel about franchising, hosted by Mary Jo Larson of Franchise Times.

During the session, Greco said being successful in the restaurant franchising business means "really enjoying it" because of all the work involved.

"And, it's about fairness. Everyone who is working on this brand should be sharing in the success of the business," he said.

Engaging a deep franchise base was an important first step when he was hired at Sbarro.

"They had been through a lot of turmoil and I have to have them understand what we're doing and our plan to get there," Greco said. "You start everything by building trust and you do that through communication."

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