In 1964, Villa Pizza opened next to the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. The modest mom-and-pop spot was owned by Michele Scotto, an immigrant from Naples, Italy, whose story quickly became a classic example of the American Dream.
Scotto served The Beatles, The Monkees and many other acts after their late-night shows at the popular venue.
His concept is now Villa Enterprises Management, a privately owned, multi-concept quick-service franchisor with more than 320 locations in 38 U.S. states and six countries.
The company is headquartered in Morristown, N.J.; however in 2006, Villa Enterprises opened a flagship Villa Café location in Times Square, sticking closely to its roots.
Although he continues to consult on business decisions, including R&D, Scotto’s brainchild is currently in the hands of his sons, Anthony, CEO, and Biagio, president, who continue to subscribe to their father’s philosophy.
“We follow the tradition and values that Mr. Scotto always taught us – an unwavering commitment to quality and service more than anything else,” said Adam Torine, senior vice president of business development, who has been with the company for 17 years. “But we’re also open-minded about what may be good for the company moving forward and have to make changes accordingly. It is a nice mix that has proved to be successful.”
The tradition-and-change contrast perhaps explains why the company has grown, and continues to grow, but does so at a slow and steady pace. In 1999, Villa Enterprises began franchising and, consequently, most of its development has come within the past decade.
Villa’s QSR footprint
Villa Enterprises has planted many seeds in the quick-service landscape. Its flagship is Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, a rebranded version of the original concept opened in 1964, with a heavy focus on tradition revolving around old world pizza, homemade pasta and more.
The company’s portfolio also includes Green Leaf’s – Beyond Great Salads, and Bananas Smoothies & Frozen Yogurt, both of which have been around since the 1970s. Villa’s newer concepts include South Philly Steaks & Fries, Casa Java, Mo’Burger and Far East. The South Philly brand was acquired in 2003; while the others are proprietary.
These brands are specifically designed to operate in high traffic areas, such as shopping malls, outlet centers, airports, universities, office buildings and casinos.
“This strategy, to be in these types of locations, is who we are. We understand food courts very well. We have it down to a science as much as we can. These are the venues we’re most comfortable in,” said Torine.
Villa has even added entire food courts to its collection. The company manages and operates the food court space at The Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pa., and calls it “The Market,” a the grab-and-go concept.
The Market includes Bananas, Green Leaf's, South Philly Steaks & Fries, Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, Casa Java, Mo' Burger and Far East. The latter two outlets only exist at this specific location, opening about a year and a half ago, and plans for their expansion have been considered.
“They’re new to us and we’re still watching how people respond. We have some tweaking to do before we decide officially to grow these (Mo’Burger and Far East), but I can tell you there is a lot of interest in the brands already,” Torine said.
Although the company boasts numerous concepts, many positioned in the same food court space, there are no territorial issues between them, Torine insists. Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen has the largest footprint, with more than 225 locations domestically and abroad.
In terms of finances, all Torine discloses about the private company is that Villa’s brands across the board are “very strong,” and that the company is debt-free.
“Having all of these brands to choose from – having a salad concept, or pizza or yogurt – is ideal because we can offer more brands for our franchisees,” he said. “It comes down to having a synergetic environment. Yes, our food products are very different, but the opportunity this offers us to take up an entire food court, as opposed to one, two or three spaces, is one reason we’ve had success as a company.”
Beyond the food court
Villa’s portfolio extends far beyond the QSR-heavy food court space. The company also runs full-service concepts George and Martha’s, Black Horse Tavern, Black Horse Pub, MacKenzie’s, Il Forno and Café Villa Pizzeria & Ristorante.
Villa Enterprises Ltd. also kicked off 2011 with the acquisition of seven-unit The Office Beer Bar & Grill for about $4.7 million. The Office has been a sports bar/restaurant destination throughout New Jersey for more than 40 years.
But just because the company has delved into various segments (Villa considers Mo’Burger and Far East to be fast casual), doesn’t mean it will veer from Scotto’s original vision any time soon, especially as it stays in the family.
“We have a variety of brands now, but we’ve grown very slowly, methodically and strategically. Our growth has always been about really doing the right thing – not growing for the sake of growing, but growing for the right reasons and turning down deals or brands or franchisees that don’t fit our system,” Torine said. “It was never our intention to be the biggest, just the strongest. Food is in our blood.”
Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.