Legendary pizzerias bet on fast-casual makeovers

Aug. 30, 2006
Two legendary pizza chains are getting facility and menu makeovers in an effort to grab a share of the growing fast-casual dining segment. Papa Gino's is making a system-wide name change to Papa Gino's Pizzeria, and Shakey's Pizza is testing a single prototype Shakey's Pizza & Grill restaurant.
Both companies have invested in contemporary, redesigned store interiors and broader, jazzed-up menus. Each also will employ new marketing strategies designed to let customers know these aren't the same decades-old pizza companies.
Dedham, Mass.-based Papa Gino's newest store in Shrewsbury, Mass., bears the new look, which will undergo a
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gradual duplication at its 163 stores located in the Northeast. Shakey's changes represent the first significant store design and menu innovations for the chain since its 2004 buyout by The Jacmar Companies.
Tim Pulido, Shakey's president and chief executive, expects big things from the new prototype, but he insists this first grill store, located in Covina, Calif., is only a test for a more refined Shakey's of the future.
"It's been a lot of fun to take a 52-year-old brand and figure out how to bring it into the 21st century while being true to its roots," Pulido said. The new unit's grand opening is Sept. 7. "As a prototype, we've (invested) more into this than we would a restaurant we expect to duplicate. As we learn from this first one, we'll value-engineer from that point on."
In re-imaging Papa Gino's, the company asked the question, "Who are we and what are we about?" said Michael McManama, senior vice president of brand development. But it also surveyed the competition in deciding what Papa Gino's needed to become to remain competitive into the future.
"The emergence of fast-casual has caused a lot of restaurants to look at whether they're serving fast food in a cold, sterile environment, or whether they're something more," he said. "In changing Papa Gino's, we wanted a dining experience that was more warm and inviting than what we've had."
Shaking it up at Shakey's
Alhambra, Calif.-based Shakey's has used a fast-casual service model for years. (Customers order at the counter and they're called to pick up their food when it's ready.) But Pulido said the menu and the décor needed upgrading to make the 58-unit chain fast casual in the modern sense.
The new décor pays homage to Shakey's past
The newly designed Papa Gino's Pizzeria comes with an open kitchen to allow guests to watch pizza makers.
             Photo and cover photo courtesy of Papa Gino's Pizzeria and Christoper Navin Photography.
(company logos are painted on exposed brick walls next to photos of old stores) but addresses modern tastes with contemporary lighting and seating and an open kitchen. Shakey's target audience will remain families, Pulido said, but he wanted the 5,000 square-foot prototype to be attractive to adult customers as well.
In addition to its celebrated pizza and fried chicken offerings, Shakey's Pizza & Grill will offer four Angus burgers, five sandwiches, six tossed-to-order salads and premium beers from Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, Calif. Most of the kitchen activity, including foods cooked on the new gas char-grill, will be visible to customers.
The game room is expected to remain popular, Pulido said, but a glass wall partitioning it off from the dining room should better control noise levels. "We want kids to have fun, but we want the dining room to be relaxed. We think we've eliminated what I call the Las Vegas effect with the glass."
Shakey's is eager to work the kinks out of the new model and begin refurbishing its other 10 corporate stores. Puldio said he hopes the new look will draw new franchisees and encourage current franchisees to build new units.
Redlands, Calif., franchisee Chuck Wilburn said he likes what he's seen in the Covina unit, but he wants to watch how well it runs before considering building one.
"There are a lot of new dishes, so I'd like to see how that complicates the operation," Wilburn said. "But if it takes off, finds a niche and does the sales, then I'm all for it."
Papa's new child
Like Shakey's, Papa Gino's was determined to acknowledge its roots as a pizza company in its own redesign.
"We wanted to bring back the fun of watching pizzas being made," he said. The chain recently introduced its Rustic Pizza, which bears an artisan look and an Old World thin-crust texture. "You have a clear line of visibility at the front counter, where you can see the oven and watch them stretch, paint and cut the pizzas. We're artists here."
Shakey's pizza salad
The salad above is one of several new menu items to be rolled out when the Shakey's Pizza & Grill opens in September.
     Photo couresty of Shakey's Pizza & Grill
Gino's is expanding its premium sandwich line with a new eggplant panino, and it will continue serving a manageable lineup of salads and hot pastas. The most profound changes are in the front of the house, where the company wanted to add some ambiance by creating a "bistro feel," McManama said. Stores typically span 3,500 square feet and seat 90.
"We have a new color scheme, a new dining booth package and an eclectic mix of booths, tables and chairs," he said. "In our Shrewsbury location, we have patio seating outside for the first time. And where space permits in the future, we'll add it."
In an effort to create a level of "limited service plus," Papa Gino's is testing a "servizio," essentially an employee focused on keeping the dining room tidy and seeing to guests' needs where possible. At peak times, two servizios roam the room looking to help, but more commonly only one is at work."
Low risk, high reward
Both McManama and Pulido acknowledged the risk of confusing guests when changing such well-established concepts as these, but both are confident that tweaks and twists made on each will only improve the guest experience and raise overall satisfaction. Given the competition in the restaurant business, McManama believes Papa Gino's had no choice but to raise its own bar.
"I don't hesitate to give credit to Starbucks and Panera for what they've done to alter guest expectations in the restaurant environment," he said. "The competitive set has changed, so if we want to continue growing our business, we have to look at new ways to do that."

Topics: Marketing , Operations Management

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