Segment Spotlight, October 2009; The Evolution of Italian

By streamlining operations and incorporating efficient equipment, the Italian restaurant segment has held up in hard times.

Against tough odds, the Italian restaurant segment appears to be weathering the storm of today's rough economy.

For example, chains in this segment are expanding. Boca Raton, Fla.-based Rotelli Pizza, Pasta, Perfect, which has 30 fast-casual operations in six states, plans to open sites in Texas, California, Utah and even Brazil within the next year.

Other operations are changing to a gourmet format. When 312 Chicago opened in the Windy City 12 years ago, the focus was on Italian-American inspired cuisine. Since Chef Luca Corazzina took over last January, the menu has been revamped and is now more upscale.

More Italian restaurants are incorporating chef-driven concepts that feature authentic, imported ingredients from Italy. The menus at Corte Madera, Calif.-based Il Fornaio's 22 locations highlight fresh and seasonal Italian food, rotating every two weeks to feature new tastes from various regions.

Sales in the Italian restaurant segment totaled more than $15 billion in 2008, a 1.6 percent jump from the prior year, according to Chicago-based Technomic's 2009 report. Unit numbers remained steady at slightly more than 14,600 last year.

"Everyone loves Italian because it is consistent and offers variety," says Ben Rogers, executive chef at Brio Tuscan Grille, a 36-site chain is owned by Bravo Development of Columbus, Ohio. "Everyone can find something they like on the menu."

Streamlining Operations

Like all segments, the goal of these restaurants is to keep operating costs down to help boost profitability. Consequently, Italian restaurant operators constantly seek out opportunities to streamline their operations.

"Pasta companies are working hard, experimenting with pre-prepared sauces," says Peter Schonman, corporate executive chef at Bloomington, Ill.-based Biaggi's Ristorante, which has 21 locations nationwide. "Even in Italy, they are creating frozen sauce cubes to expedite production. U.S. pasta factories and companies are using the latest technology to develop pasta stuffed with chunks of ingredients, instead of ground fillings. This fits more with what American consumers are looking for."

For scratch kitchens like Biaggi's, one of the biggest challenges is timing. As a result, the chain has looked into updating its back of the house procedures.

"Induction stove quality and longevity has increased, so we're considering incorporating these units in our locations," Schonman says. "With the cost of natural gas increasing, this may provide potential savings."

Although not a QSR, Biaggi's may follow the lead of these foodservice operations by adding touch screen computer ordering systems to replace paper tickets.

"These units have become more adaptable to our type of service and restaurant," Schonman says. "The return on investment will not only be a higher quality product, but also faster table turns since expediters can focus on the food. If we can reduce customer wait times from 45 to 30 minutes, that's a good thing."

With today's bottom lines, staffing expenses also can be a challenge. To help save on labor costs, Rotelli's cross trains its employees to handle a variety of jobs in the kitchen. With most kitchens accommodating just two people behind the line, this multi-task training helps save space as well. "When it's slow in the afternoon, there's no reason a prep cook can't cook on the line or a dishwasher can't learn how to prep," says Rob Lebrun, the chain's director of training, food and beverage.

Equipment efficiencies have helped many operators save costs. For example, instead of wood-burning ovens, Brio Tuscan Grille's new locations use gas pizza ovens, which are more economical and easier to operate.

In addition, the chain added defroster units for frozen items, which have helped streamline its operations. To further keep costs in line, Brio employees closely monitor portion control, utilizing portion bags, tablespoons and 1-ounce spoodles to pre-measure key ingredients.

"We can put frozen meats in the defroster to thaw in 30 minutes, rather than two to three days in the cooler," Rogers says. "Prep costs money, so the less prep we have the better."

Il Fornaio staff use various sizes of blast chillers to help keep products at proper temperatures and provide detailed records for health inspectors. The restaurants also added bread warming ovens, which keep bread both warm and soft.

"We recently implemented pasta machines that are regulated," says Michael Beatrice, Il Fornaio's president. "These replenish and recycle water during the cooking process, providing better product consistency. It's important to perform the correct procedures to accommodate our high volume, and we need the proper equipment to make that happen."

With 35 percent of the Il Fornaio's menu being pasta, the chain places an emphasis on the authenticity of the food prep. Staff cut pasta using a brass die as opposed to a stainless steel one, which helps preserve the shape. New Il Fornaio locations also have curing rooms for salami, sausage and other meats. Its slicers are Italian-made and operate manually to maintain the meats' integrity.

Similarly, Chicago's Piccolo Sogno restaurant focuses on authentic Italian dining, which means food must be as homemade, simple, and fresh as possible, and service may include four or five courses with appetizers, first-course pasta dishes, meat and fish entrees, dessert and cheese courses. To achieve this, Chef Anthony Priolo says he won't compromise on the equipment. Prosciutto is hand-cut using a hand-cranked slicer, and custom-made wood-burning ovens and grills are used for the pizzas, meats, fish and other foods. The pasta station includes a custom-made pasta machine and pasta boiler that filters water. Whole pigs sourced from a local farmer are deboned, marinated and roasted on site. Gelato is made from scratch using a traditional machine.

"We upgraded our equipment, due to an increase in volume," Priolo says.

Likewise, 312 Chicago uses upgraded equipment to meet its demand for authentic Italian food. The restaurant replaced a couple of freezers in its basement and added a Panini machine. In addition, the restaurant plans to update its other equipment, including three ovens, a grill and salamander, by next year.

"Durability is what we look for in equipment," Corazzina says. "We've found that higher-end equipment lasts a long time."

Value Propositions

Streamlining operations and increasing kitchen efficiencies have allowed many Italian restaurants to offer their customers more bang for their buck, as the popular saying goes. This has become a necessity in today's economy.

In addition to offering a lunch combo, which includes a half order of pasta with soup or salad, Biaggi's introduced its Pronto Pack.

Customers can choose from a variety of to-go pasta and salad items that feed a family of four for about $40. Customers can add appetizers, pizza and desserts can for an extra cost.

"This offer is value-driven, so customers feel like they are not paying restaurant prices for take-out," Schonman says. Chef specialties include garlic shrimp organata and tilapia Florentine.

Brio has also introduced more value-added deals and specials to keep guests coming back, and happy. Many locations offer a $7.95 lunch special, three-course value-priced dinners and "happy hour" appetizer specials at the bar. Pasta specials include chicken Milanese pomodoro, lasagna Bolognese al forno and veal Marsala classico.

"We're trying to stay creative in terms of our specials. It's important not only to stay within the Italian concept, but to also have a sellable product in a certain price range," Rogers says. Pasta and entrée salads are mainstays for Brio.

Like Biaggi's, Rotelli's has focused on its delivery service. The chain's entire menu, including its signature Bella retell pasta with chicken, artisan cheese, tomatoes and homemade white sauce, is available for delivery within a three-mile radius of its locations.

"It's our goal to get people out of the mindset that if they want good Italian, they have to eat in," Lebrun says.

And at Piccolo Sogno, almost all entrees are priced at less than $24, despite the restaurant's use of many specialty ingredients like truffles, Sicilian pistachios and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Wines also stay moderately priced and the restaurant also offers free valet parking at lunchtime.

"Our moderate pricing is a big draw," says Priolo. Piccolo Sogno's dishes, including four-cheese ravioli and wood-roasted Sicilian sea salt crusted sea bass, are prepared with a combination of local and imported ingredients.

Facing a similar dilemma with pricier ingredients, 312 Chicago focuses on sourcing local and seasonal product to helps drive down costs and appease customers' appetite for these types of foods. The restaurant's best sellers, including the tortellini con ricotta with ricotta and spinach in a brown butter sage and fettuccine rustiche with proscuitto di Parma, porcini mushrooms, garlic and tomato basil sauce feature lower cost ingredients.

As more Italian restaurants focus on what makes them authentically Italian, which is the quality of ingredients and simple, but sophisticated cooking techniques, consumers who have become comfortable and familiar with the cuisine continue to come back and even seek out these restaurants for the first time. A focus on local, seasonal, and regional foods in an elevated dining setting has kept sales up in an era when diners seek sophistication, but at moderate prices.

"People see Italian food as a win-win," Rotelli's Lebrun says. "There is always something for everyone. Because people have limited funds and less disposable income these days, they don't want to take a chance on unfamiliar cuisine."

Even with the increasing competitiveness in the Italian restaurant segment, sales continue to remain steady. With 20 different regions in Italy to pull from, operators have an almost endless array of dishes to incorporate into their menus. This diversity, along with pasta's economical cost, will keep these restaurants thriving through tough times.