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R&IEditorial Archives2005September 15 — Business

Something Old, Something New
Italian chains court guests with familiar dishes and surprise them with twists.

Fazoli’s added chicken, broccoli and whole-wheat pasta dishes for low-carb dieters.

Sodexho USA’s Pandini’s originated as a college-campus fast-casual Italian operation. Now it and other proprietary Sodexho concepts may move into commercial sites through franchising.

Olive Garden’s Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta (top) and Romano’s Macaroni Grill’s Chicken Scaloppine are among the multiflavor dishes being added to Italian chain menus.

On the traditional end of the menu at Romano’s Macaroni Grill, there’s lasagna Bolognese, pizza margherita and spaghetti and meatballs. On the less-customary side guests find Penne Rustica (pasta baked in cream sauce with shrimp, prosciutto and chicken), BBQ chicken pizza and cheese-crusted filet, dishes the Dallas-based chain likes to call “Italian with a twist.”

Nancy Hampton, vice president of concept strategy, sees nothing unorthodox about the mix of traditional and inventive dishes. “Both come off of our culinary heritage of offering the best traditional and best new takes on Italian,” Hampton says. “Both of those attributes fit where consumers are today.”

Other Italian chains join Macaroni Grill in creating menus that court customers with familiar favorites then tempt them with dishes that might not strictly be Italian, but certainly sound like it. “The entire Italian industry has broadened its notion of what is Italian,” says Dennis Benson, vice president of marketing at Fazoli’s, the Lexington, Ky.-based fast-casual chain. He offers sea bass as a high-end example: “Put it with a side of pasta and consumers say it fits. We’re no longer limited to just serving pasta and sauce.”

With those barriers down, Italian menus are becoming more creative, riffing not just on pasta but on entrées too; more diverse, not only in flavors but in the balance of pasta and protein; and flexible in terms of offering both indulgent and diet-friendly fare. Operators believe this something-for-everyone approach draws more customers and provides restaurants with a buffer against diet trends and fads.

More Than Meatballs
Olive Garden says its latest menu additions, rolled out July 4, introduce popular Italian cooking techniques to American customers. One such dish is an appetizer called Smoked Mozzarella Fonduta ($6.95). “Smoking is fairly commonplace in Italy, and it’s a gaining flavor profile in the United States,” says Steve Coe, director of media and public relations for Orlando-based Olive Garden, a division of Darden Restaurants. A new entrée, Five Cheese Ziti al Forno ($10.50), embellishes a classic with the addition of five cheeses. Tilapia, a menu staple, gets what Coe calls an “innovative presentation” with a Parmesan crust ($13.75).

Each dish comes with a wine recommendation, a menu strategy Olive Garden has worked successfully for the past six years. Servers encourage guests to taste any wine by the glass; last year, the chain offered 30 million samples of wine, Coe says. The tastes, plus intense server training, have resulted in wine sales increases of 15% to 20% over the six-year period, he says. (Olive Garden wouldn’t release wine sales as a percentage of total revenue.)

Pandini’s, the 14-unit fast-casual concept owned by Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA, lets customers experience new flavors via quarterly limited-time offers. The promotion lets Pandini’s stick to a core menu of pasta, pizza, salad and the sandwiches they call Labretti. “We can stay with those and give little twists to keep them fresh and innovative,” says Erica Milios, senior brand manager at Sodexho Retail Brand Group, Allentown, Pa. For instance, customer research showed that citrus is becoming more popular as a flavor, so fall’s offerings include Maui Barbecue Pizza ($4.79 for a 10-inch pie) and Lemon Basil Bowtie with Roasted Chicken ($5.29).

Culinary Diversity
New dishes go beyond pasta at Brio Tuscan Grille and Bravo! Cucina Italiana, both full-serve chains owned by Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo! Development Inc. “If you look at sales for both concepts, we sell a lot of fish,” says Nicole Roope, marketing director. Grilled salmon, she says, is the best-selling dish at Brio.

Bravo’s new menu, rolled out in August, includes plenty of seafood options. Among the choices are an appetizer of crispy shrimp with charred tomato sauce ($8.95), flatbread with shrimp, chorizo and pesto aioli ($9.95), and a Mediterranean-flavored pasta with shrimp, garlic, spinach, basil, asparagus, feta and red-pepper flakes in white wine-lemon butter sauce ($14.95).

New dishes at Brio, a more-upscale concept, are heavy on protein and light on starch: Prosciutto-stuffed chicken breast ($16.95) is served with Tuscan mashed potatoes (garlic, olive oil and a “secret” ingredient); Mediterranean Chicken Insalata pairs grilled chicken, roasted vegetables and a lettuce mixture with lemon vinaigrette ($12.50); and Mussels Portofino, an appetizer of mussels with garlic and pancetta in white-wine lemon cream sauce ($9.95), is served with flatbread crisps.

Bravo’s customer research revealed concerns about portion size, Roope says. “If they felt a dish wasn’t large enough, they were definitely commenting on it,” she says. When customers complained that the new appetizer was too small, “we added a few mussels.”

Balancing Acts
According to Roope, the menus’ balance of pasta and protein kept Bravo and Brio from suffering a sales slump during the low-carb craze, which is on the wane, if not completely finished, she believes. Menus at both concepts nodded to carb-conscious diners with three or four no- or low-carb dishes, plus an offer to substitute vegetables for potatoes. However, “we didn’t change the DNA of the menu,” Roope adds.

Fazoli’s bowed to the low-carb craze with two dishes—chicken-broccoli bake ($4.69) and a chicken platter consisting of chicken breast with a double portion of broccoli ($5.99). Despite that effort, low carb’s brief dominance of the national psyche “made it more difficult to build sales,” Benson says. “It was a blip on our sales growth map.” Fazoli’s research, he adds, indicated that 17% of consumers said they were on a low-carb diet at the peak of the trend.

While the chicken platter sells well—and creates another use for the chicken breast Fazoli’s uses on a panini—demand “fizzled out” for the chicken-broccoli bake. The bake left the menu when Fazoli’s added whole-wheat penne to its Build Your Own Pasta option. The pasta option ($2.99 for a small and $3.99 for a large portion and sauce, plus $1 for each additional ingredient) is the ultimate in flexible menus, offering guests 1,000 combinations, including 100 with eight or fewer grams of fat.

“It gives power to guests,” says Marketing Director Julie Gondak. “Fazoli’s was not empowering guests—it was marinara or nothing.”

BYO pasta and choices such as whole-wheat noodles and, come fall, “all-natural” chicken, will help Fazoli’s promote overall wellness rather than a particular nutritional fad. “Italian food by nature has wellness in it,” Benson says. “Lycopene [the antioxidant found in tomatoes] is a good story for us. We don’t talk about ‘diet food.’”

Along similar lines, Caff Ritazza, a chain of 18 quick-service espresso bars found mostly in airports and on college campuses, focuses menu efforts on “health-conscious stuff, not so much based on carbs or fat,” says Bianca Rivera, marketing manager of the concept, owned by Compass Group, Charlotte, N.C.

Caff Ritazza’s drink menu, which accounts for 60% of sales, changes seasonally and offers a dietary option in the form of soymilk. Rivera says customers order soy-based smoothies as a meal replacement; the smoothies, made with fresh or frozen fruit, account for 30% of cold beverages.

The concept currently is assembling nutrition information for its products, a project that will be finished at the end of the year. After that, “we’ll market to certain health needs—low-carb, low-fat, low-sodium, no dairy, that type of thing,” Rivera says.

Not Macaroni Grill. The chain continues to offer its Sensible Fare menu, a collection of low-fat and low-carb chicken and seafood dishes ($8.99 to $14.99), gives customers the choice of whole-wheat penne, a create-your-own pasta option, and the choice of a vegetable rather than potato. “We can accommodate most needs, diet fads, lifestyles or allergies,” Hampton says.

Or even customers who want nothing but a hearty meal. “What customers want or need today is different from what they want or need tomorrow,” she says. “When they’re ready to celebrate, there’s steak and chocolate cake—things people love to indulge in.”

Italian Best Sellers

  • Mama’s Lasagna Bolognese; $11.95. —Bravo! Cucina Italiana
  • Grilled salmon with potato and vegetable of the day; $16.95. —Brio Tuscan Grille
  • Cuban Roasted Pork Panini; $3.99 to $5.99. —Caff Ritazza
  • Sampler platter: Spaghetti and meat sauce, fettuccine Alfredo and six-layer lasagna with meat sauce; $3.99. —Fazoli’s
  • Tour of Italy: Lasagna, chicken Parmigiana and fettucine Alfredo; $14.50. —Olive Garden
  • Labretti: Sandwiches stuffed with hot or cold ingredients (chicken Caesar; ham, Cheddar and tomato); $4.39 to $4.69. —Pandini’s
  • Penne Rustica: Shrimp, grilled chicken, prosciutto and penne pasta baked in Italian cream sauce; $9.49 lunch, $11.99 dinner.—Romano’s Macaroni Grill

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