After reviewing dozens of candidates, not to mention sampling countless slices of pizza, the editors of Pizza Marketplace are proud to name Tony Palombino our 2008 Independent Operator of the Year. Palombino is the owner and namesake of the four-unit Tony Boombozz chain in Louisville, Ky.
"As a follower of the city's dining trends, I've also been intrigued to see the ways that Tony constantly tests new ideas," said Robin Garr, a longtime Louisville restaurant, food and wine writer and operator of the Louisville food blog LouisvilleHotBytes.com.
"I've always been impressed with his passion for pizza making and the obvious pride he takes in his product," Garr said. "It's the kind of pride that shows in the results."
Palombino's restaurants did a combined $2.6 million in sales last year, and comparable-store sales increased 7 percent. A new fast-casual concept he developed was a resounding success, and Palombino recently launched a full-service version of his gourmet pizzeria.
Pizza Marketplace editors will present the award Feb. 17 to Palombino during the North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show, to be held at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio. The presentation will take place at 1 p.m. during the show's Pizza Pizzazz competition.
Growing up in the kitchen
Palombino certainly has the credentials to be a top-notch pizza operator. His parents both immigrated to the United States from Italy, owning pizzerias in several parts of the country. The family settled in Louisville in 1987 and opened a pizzeria that featured a wood-burning oven.
Palombino ditched the restaurant business as a teenager and moved to Hawaii, but returned to the mainland in 1994 to help a friend open a wood-burning oven pizza concept in Kansas City.
"I just came to help him out, but I ended up staying," Palombino said. "It worked out very well."
The following year, one of Palombino's pizza creations was named International Pizza of the Year at Pizza Festiva in Las Vegas. The Pollotate features marinated chicken, roasted potatoes and red onions on a garlic olive-oil glazed crust topped with Asiago and mozzarella cheeses.
"That really is what started things rolling for me and got me and the concept noticed," Palombino said.
The award piqued the interest of a group of Cincinnati businessmen who wanted to convert a steak restaurant into an Italian eatery utilizing a wood-burning pizza oven. So, Palombino sold his interest in the Kansas City operation and moved to Cincinnati.
He returned to Louisville in 1997, seeking a new challenge and created a number of restaurant concepts, including sandwich concept Thatsa Wrap, which eventually grew to eight units.
"It was great while it lasted, but pizza came back calling," Palombino said.
"I knew I couldn't be competitive just by doing traditional pizzas, especially with two major chains in my back yard," he said. "I realized no one was doing gourmet pizza, especially gourmet pizza delivery, so I thought I could fill a niche with that."
Palombino opened the first Tony Boombozz in 1998 in a 600-square-foot space in Louisville's St. Matthews neighborhood. His partner, Gary Wilson, still operates that location.
Inside Tony Palombino's pizzeria, Tony Boombozz Pizza-Vino, in Louisville, Ky.
"We have such a good product here that hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't tell me that this is the best pizza they've ever had," Wilson said.
Although the initial business started out slow, "within eight months we were really busting at the seams," Palombino said. "We were folding boxes outside because we had no room."
Within a year, Palombino opened a second Tony Boombozz in the Highlands section of Louisville. That location was a success as well.
Trying something new
Palombino started feeling comfortable with the operation he had built, and pretty soon the creative urge struck again.
"I love creating concepts, so I thought I would try to bring something I liked from the West Coast to Louisville," he said. "I created a Mexican concept that featured fish tacos and I did a sandwich concept as well, but all along I'm noticing this fast-casual trend coming to fruition."
Tony Boombozz was a success as a delivery-carryout operation, but Palombino wanted to test it in a fast-casual setting. In 2005, he opened Tony Boombozz Pizza-Vino, a fast-casual version of the Boombozz delivery operation.
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Despite the initial success of the Pizza-Vino concept, Palombino constantly sought ways to distance himself in the growing fast-casual category. Distinguishing touches include real plates and silverware, along with a staff that circulates through the dining room, filling drinks and clearing dishes.
"In fast casual, you have a wonderful opportunity to really wow the customer," Palombino said. "When someone comes up to the counter and orders, they are expecting self-service. We train our staff to almost give them the full-service experience and exceed their expectations."
The extra effort seems to be paying off. The fast-casual location — which also offers delivery — did about $1.1 million in sales last year, Palombino said, compared with an average of $600,000 for the delco units.
Next on Palombino's plate is to expand through franchising. He's already working with a franchisee who recently opened a full-service Tony Boombozz restaurant in the Louisville suburb of Jeffersontown.
Palombino also is in discussions with several potential partners interested in expanding the concept to nearby cities.
"The idea for franchising is to have a delco unit, a fast-casual unit and a full-service unit available for franchising," he said. "The full-service unit is still a prototype, so we have to learn some things and see if that's where we want to go."
Wherever the company goes, Louisvillians hope Palombino remains in the city. He's a treasure to the Louisville food and dining community, restaurant critic Garr said.
"The guy seems to be a perpetual motion machine for generating new restaurant ideas, trying them and often making them work," Garr said. "And through it all, he keeps on winning national and international pizza awards. We're lucky to have him here."