"It's a whole new Fazoli's."
That's the slogan highlighting an ambitious new advertising campaign by the Lexington-based Italian restaurant chain, and it comes just as the business embarks on its latest initiative to win back customers.
Fazoli's launched a customer-service plan last week that includes shifting managers into dining areas to serve as the breadstick people and establish a greater rapport with customers to ensure all concerns are met.
"The vision really for me is to provide a $10 or higher experience for $6," chief executive Carl Howard said. "I want people to come in and get a casual dining experience and still leave here paying in the $6 range and get the services you would get without tipping."
In addition to the new role for managers, all restaurant workers, particularly cashiers, have been retrained to be more knowledgeable of the menu, which has changed extensively in recent years.
"Our food has really evolved. You have to explain to someone like my dad what a piada is," Howard said, referring to the company's Italian open-faced flatbread sandwiches that can be eaten like burritos.
"We've also got a chicken carbonara and a Tuscan pizza. We want our cashiers to be able to say the Tuscan pizza's made with banana peppers, got a great sauce, has black olives and comes on flatbread."
To help with the change, the company performed an employment profile assessment to examine whether each worker was in the position most suited to his or her skills.
"We used to just hire somebody, and they would be a Fazoli's employee," Howard said. "Now we're hiring people for a certain position.
"Some cooks don't make great cashiers. We analyzed all our existing employees and are putting the aces in the places."
Initially, the changes are taking place only at company-owned restaurants and locations owned by two franchisees. All restaurants in Kentucky will feature the customer service changes, Howard said.
He said workers' reactions to the changes have been pretty positive, though change always comes with some questions, such as those from managers who "are always used to the role they've been playing."
The goal is to have the managers be "more of a dining room concierge," Howard said. "They're there to fulfill whatever needs the guests have."
The company will assess the results of the customer service initiative through a series of surveys at each restaurant and then ask franchisees to implement the changes if it's a success.
That's similar to how the company has spearheaded a number of initiatives in recent years. Among those has been a series of physical updates at stores including updated décor and exteriors, table service, having a dedicated breadstick person in dining rooms; and replacing disposable plates, cups and utensils with reusable plates, silverware and glasses.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive: The chain has had 20 straight months of increases in same-store sales. That's a key retail measurement that looks at sales at stores open at least a year to factor out the effects of openings and closings.
Howard said same-store sales were up 15 percent in the first week of April.
Fazoli's also is running an extensive marketing campaign for the next several months that spotlights the many changes.
"We really wanted to make sure we could go out and let everybody know it's a new Fazoli's experience," said Cathy Hull, chief marketing officer.
The advertisements will be on television, online, in print and on outdoor billboards, she said, and include a special Web site, Wholenewfazolis.com.
Howard also noted the company recently reaffirmed its commitment to keeping its corporate headquarters in Lexington by signing a 10-year extension on its office space. Fazoli's also is making more than $150,000 in improvements to the space on Palumbo Drive.
The company's changes have received strong reviews from observers of the restaurant industry.
Dennis Lombardi, an executive specializing in restaurants with design-development company WD Partners, said the customer service initiative builds off of a metaphorical tripod that also includes physical locations and menus.
"All three legs of the tripod are important, but service is right up there with food as a critical one," he said.
Lombardi said that if the program is well-executed, the company could begin to see results such as positive reviews on Yelp.com during the next several months.
"The impact on the brand takes longer because while some customers are frequent users, some are infrequent users," said Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies for the Columbus, Ohio, firm.
And a successful customer service initiative is key to building on the marketing campaign, he said.
"Advertising will bring them in," he said, "but the experience in the store brings them back."
Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz.