Fast. Fresh. Italian. And now, new and improved.
Fazoli’s, the Kentucky-born restaurant chain known for providing a taste of Italian cuisine in a quick-service environment, has undergone a makeover and change in philosophy. It’s something president and CEO Carl Howard is very excited about — and hopes customers here in Pulaski County will be too.
“We love the Somerset market,” said Howard. “We get so much support from the local community.”
Fazoli’s began in Lexington at the end of the 1980s but spread out quickly — at its peak, the chain had in the neighborhood of 400 stores around the country. The Somerset location opened in 1995, and has been something Fazoli’s can hang its cappello on, as an “above average” store in Howard’s words. It does close to 15 percent better business than the company average, draws a big gross every year, and has a veteran management team that Howard lauded.
That said, Somerset’s Fazoli’s has in the past suffered from some of the problems that the chain as a whole has determined to fix. Fazoli’s has changed the aesthetic appeal of its dining experience, improved ingredients and added new menu items, and has brought back an old favorite — tableside breadstick service.
“What we’ve done is that we’ve changed every element of the business,” said Howard. “We updated the environment and put money into every single restaurant.”
That includes cosmetic changes and fundamental ones. For one thing, stores have received paint jobs, decor alterations, new countertops, all in an effort to make them “more modern and brighter.”
Most noticeable, though, is the use of actual plateware and glassware. Fazoli’s customers have long been accustomed to bringing plastic and Styrofoam containers or tin foil boats full of pasta back to the table — a look that just didn’t suit the food itself.
No more. Though the speed of service will remain the same, food will be served on the kind of plates — and drinks in the kind of glasses — you’d expect to find at a casual dining restaurant, one where you’d pay a lot more for that kind of dining experience than you would at Fazoli’s.
“We were selling $6 entrees and presenting it like a $3 experience in foam and foil,’ said Howard. “We never really got the credit for how good our food really was. Now we’re selling the entree for $6, but we’re presenting it like a $10 experience. We feel that’s a good value equation for the guest.”
Moreover, forget that little buzzer that signals you when it’s time to walk up to the counter and get your food. Fazoli’s will now bring your food out to you.
“One of the benefits of that is if you’re a family with children, you don’t want to go up and leave your child at the table,” said Howard. “If there’s a large group of six or seven people, it’s hard to carry out six or seven plates. Now we’re running the food out to you.”
(And don’t worry about paying more than you normally would for fast food — Howard assured that tipping the server is not necessary or even encouraged.)
Also back is breadstick service. Fazoli’s became known for having friendly faces wander from table to table, dispensing warm, buttery breadsticks, but that was stopped in 2006 as a cost-cutting measure when the company’s fortunes were suffering. It “was not a good move for Fazoli’s,” said Howard, and though the move saved the company $1.7 million, “you can cost-cut yourself right out of business,” he added.
“The breadsticks were something people came to love, a real iconic element of the brand,” he said. “We felt this was the right time, with everything we were doing, to re-establish that (breadstick service), and we’re not going to take it away again.”
The changes are expected to add 750-1,000 new jobs company-wide, and between two to nine per store. In a store like Somerset, assuming sales continue to do well, three or four new jobs could be created.
The chain has also worked to improve its ingredients. More dairy in the Alfredo sauce, for instance; better quality of cheeses; and technical things one might not even think about, like using cold-packed marinara sauce instead of hot-packed — the latter is cheaper and less time-consuming but it kills the nutrients and flavor. “Cold-packed” keeps the sauce a vibrant red, and rich in taste and healthiness.
The menu itself has been given an overhaul. It’s already been changed up to “80 percent,” said Howard, and will be 100 percent new in August when the company rolls out its “mega menu.” That includes a new line of chopped salads, with the ingredients mixed together with the dressing, and pizza sticks — “They’re awesome,” said Howard. “They’re unbelievably indulgent, gooey, like a pepperoni pizza in a stick that you can hold in your hand.”
Also new are breadstick dippers, which can come with marinara, Alfredo, pizza, or ranch dipping sauce and five or six baked items which have been added over the last few years, including Submarino sandwiches, which are all baked.
The new Fazoli’s concept was launched Dayton, Ohio a year ago, then tested in Kansas City and St. Louis, two of the store’s 243 locations in 27 different states. It’s now coming to Kentucky, where everything started — “We wanted to make sure we really got it right before we brought it into our heart market where it’s been around for 20 years,” said Howard — and recently went live in the Danville, London, Richmond, and of course Somerset markets.
The numbers are encouraging: In February, the chain posted positive 7.1 percent in sales, the third-best month since 1998, and second-best since December of 2002. Same-store sales and guest count marks will be the best since 2002, and new restaurants are opening, not closing. Fazoli’s has a success story that Somerset has been a big part of, and now a new chapter in that tale is just beginning.
“The brand was flying high ... and it had a very quick drop, but we’re heading back up the hill,” said Howard. “It’s a long climb, but we’re growing again, and it’s just a great time for Fazoli’s, our employees, and our guests.”