A Spry and Vibrant 70
UNO Pizzeria & Grill celebrates history, evolution
Heritage and longevity are nice words. But they can’t in good conscience simply be slapped onto a given company’s marketing materials. In ideal circumstances, they have to be earned the old-fashioned way.
Fred Houston, for one, believes his employer has done it properly.
He’s the vice president of franchising for UNO Pizzeria & Grill, the latest incarnation of the Pizzeria UNO brand that’s celebrating 70 years since its founding with a single restaurant at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Ohio Street on Chicago’s near north side.
“Seventy years speaks to the heritage and longevity of our brand,” he says. “In the restaurant industry today, you need to evolve in order to stay relevant, and I believe we have done that. We continue to evolve today while not forgetting what got us here, which is the incredibly great deep-dish pizza. And we invented it in 1943.”
The enthusiasm, while hardly surprising for an executive-level employee, seems warranted when it comes to the chain’s imminent future.
The company owns and operates 84 restaurants, including the two originals in Chicago – Uno and Due, which came 12 years later at the corner of Wabash and Ontario Street. It’s additionally the namesake for more than 60 franchise units, including facilities in such far-flung locales as South Korea, Honduras, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Puerto Rico.
A development deal was signed in 2012 to bring six franchises to Mexico City, a 62nd franchise outlet was opened recently in Oaks, Pa. – roughly 30 miles from downtown Philadelphia – and 2014 is expected to include both a fourth franchise opening in Dubai and a new company restaurant unveiling.
The burst of activity comes on the heels of a transition at the top of the company early in 2013, when Ian Baines arrived as the new chief executive officer.
“There are times when a new CEO takes over the leadership role in a company and there is a course correction and a change in focus,” Houston says. “We were very fortunate that did not happen. Ian has continued to build on the path that Frank Guidara started us on when he joined us in 2005. That path is to provide our guests with friendly, hospitable service while serving flavorful quality menu items.
“Ian has brought great insight into casual dining, and that has helped us tackle some of the issues that are facing casual dining today.”
One of Baines’ strengths, in Houston’s estimation, is his inclination to listen to customers. Under his leadership, the company initiated a large-scale menu study in which more than 30,000 guests were asked to give feedback on the restaurant’s menu.
Those replies were incorporated into a system-wide rollout of a new menu in November.
Simultaneous to the menu queries, focus groups were created and competitive research done to determine how people felt about UNO’s buildings and brands, and how the chain compared to competitors. The information was used to tweak design and marketing approaches. It was also the impetus for a remodel program that will see Uno’s remodel all existing restaurants over the next two years.
“If there is one thing diners are not bashful about, it’s sharing their opinions on menu items,” Houston says. “That was very true in this case. Ian has also stayed disciplined to a testing process for new products where we gather feedback not only from operators, but from guests as well.”
The incremental reinvention of the company came following some difficult days, which included a corporate reorganization in January 2010. This was prompted by a decline in sales during the Great Recession, which created an environment that inhibited growth and ultimately hastened the reorganization.
“With the decline in sales, we became a very good company with a great brand and a bad balance sheet,” Houston says. “As luck would have it, Twin Haven, another private equity, had been watching us and buying our bonds. A piece of their business model is finding good brands and companies with poor balance sheets, which is exactly what we were. We came out of the reorganization stronger and better prepared to face the challenges in the casual dining segment.
“No one is immune from downturns in sales or leaving the mind of the customer.”
New to the UNO approach these days is the “Pick and Choose Menu,” which allows customers to pick two or more items – including a strawberry, walnut and chicken salad, chicken Milano, wedge salad, chicken scampi and a smaller version of the deep-dish pizza – for $6 per item. Other aspects of the menu were trimmed down and a revamp was done on some of the holdover menu items.
The changes were a result of the menu study, and, Houston says, favorable comments have also been received on a new layout and design of the menu – which is aimed at both highlighting new choices and emphasizing the brand’s rich heritage. A new phase of menu development is planned for the spring, when new pizzas and other additions are planned for a rollout.
Also in the pipeline is a quick casual concept that could be a part of future expansion plans.
PROTECTING THE FRANCHISE
The raft of change has created excitement among franchisees – a group that Houston insists has to be dedicated from the outset and ready to roll up sleeves and get to work.
“This is a very tough business where an owner needs to be involved every day,” he says.
“The candidate for us also has to have a passion for not only our brand, but a passion to provide a memorable dining experience. Besides passion for the business, a leading candidate has to have the financial ability to build the restaurant and have the working capital to get it started, which includes marketing, training and future development.”
They’re also depended on for ideas which can be incorporated company-wide, Houston says, while citing a Modesto, Calif. owner (John Ismail) who converted an existing restaurant to the UNO brand and created design elements he labeled as “remarkable from its previous look and feel.” It’s anticipated future franchisees will look more at converting than building because of its superior cost-effectiveness.
Because the company operates restaurants while also franchising, such communication is mandatory.
“There is always a healthy exchange,” Houston says. “Every year, one of our goals is to strengthen the communication and partnership with our franchisees. We have a very active franchise community that is never afraid to give opinions and ideas which are very helpful as we move our brand forward.”
“Our focus will continue to be strengthening and expanding our brand. We want to continue to evolve the brand, so that it remains relevant and growing. We are moving forward with a single brand voice that will help us in our expansion efforts, both domestic and international.”
For more information, please visit their website at: UNO Pizzeria & Grill