With a recent top-to-bottom rejuvenation that’s inspiring surging sales, this mall-based megabrand shows that, even after 60 years, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
When husband and wife Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro opened their eponymous Italian grocery store in Brooklyn, New York, back in 1956, they could never have imagined the icon Sbarro would become. But the immigrants from Naples knew early on that pizza was a hit when Carmela started selling slices to working-class passersby. “The area had a lot of walk-up foot traffic,” recounts Sbarro chief marketing officer Anne Pritz. “She grew such a following that customers told her, ‘You’ve gotta take this to the masses!’”
Their first mall-based pizzeria, which opened in 1970 at Brooklyn’s Kings Plaza Shopping Center, set the scene for what would become a globally known brand based mainly in food courts, airports, casinos and travel centers. Today, 800-plus locations (both corporate-owned and franchised) dot the globe from Iceland to India. But after decades of success as a family-run business, the company experienced some well-publicized tough times in recent years, leading to a 2014 move of headquarters to Columbus, Ohio, and a new CEO, David Karam.
A rebranding was also in order. Inspired by its 80% brand recall for New York-style pizza by the slice, Sbarro ditched many lower-profit “Italian eatery” items on steam tables while appealing to modern customers’ higher food IQs. “We make our dough in-house, fresh every day, and stretch and toss it,” Pritz notes. “We use San Marzano tomato sauce and 100% whole-milk, all-natural mozzarella. You can’t be everything to everyone, so we’ve focused on how to elevate that pizza-centric branding and tell our ingredient story.”
The overhaul focused on five Ps—product, place, people, price and promotions—that ushered in store remodels and a revamped website; new branding elements and equipment; bringing the “theater of pizza making” (i.e., dough tossing) up front in new locations; redesigned uniforms and training materials; and improved merchandising for eye appeal. The chain also introduced value combos, which have since seen double-digit growth; limited-time, on-trend offerings, like spicy flavors and X-treme Pepperoni Pizza; and Cucinova, a fast-casual concept, now with four locations in Ohio.
The changes have paid off: For the first time in nearly a decade, Sbarro showed positive transaction growth in 2015. “Being able to be humble, go back and recognize where we might have tripped up in the past—and then right it—is one reason we’re successful,” Pritz says. “Innovation is critical for any brand, and we’re really proud of how far we’ve come.”
— Tracy Morin