Lexington-based Fazoli's will launch a new customer initiative this spring that the chain's leadership says will be a major change for the company.
The move comes as the company also prepares to open more restaurants, including its first in a travel plaza, to mark a continued turn away from a series of down years that saw it closing locations nationwide.
Beginning April 9, restaurants will shift their managers into the dining areas to serve as the bread-stick people and establish a greater rapport with customers to ensure all concerns are met, CEO Carl Howard said. All employees also will receive two days of training to become more well-versed in the chain's expanding menu, which has been completely overhauled in the past few years and includes new items such as flatbread pizzas and piadas — an Italian open-faced flatbread sandwich that can be eaten like a burrito.
All new employees also will receive an additional two days of training beyond what's currently offered for each of their positions, he said.
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"We've been making evolutionary changes, and I think on 4/9/12 we'll be making revolutionary changes," he said, naming the initiative by its date. "If you don't notice a change when you come in on 4/9/12, I'm going to be really disappointed in my team and myself."
Melissa Wilson, principal at Chicago research firm Technomic, said the moves will help Fazoli's compete against casual-dining Italian restaurants such as Olive Garden and Carrabba's Italian Grill.
"By adding more of a service element, it gives an opportunity for the consumer to have a quicker experience and maybe a more affordable experience without sacrificing too much of the experience," she said.
Supporting that initiative will be a marketing campaign that's akin to the approach of asking customers to try them again for the first time, said Cathy Hull, Fazoli's chief marketing officer.
"Whether you were here 30 days ago or 30 months ago, we want to show you the new Fazoli's experience," Hull said. "It's coming across in everything we're doing."
Service is the next prong in the company's efforts, said Dennis Lombardi, an executive specializing in restaurants with design-development company WD Partners.
"They've done so much in improving their menu offerings ... and the way facilities look," said Lombardi, executive vice president of food-service strategies for the Columbus, Ohio, firm.
"It's good service. It's not like they have to fix a problem, but it's like the old problem — good is the enemy of great. This is a case of not settling for good and moving on to great."
The new approach has been paying off. For the past 17 months, Fazoli's has seen increases in same-store sales, a key retail measurement that looks at sales at stores open at least a year to factor out the effects of openings and closings.
Last month was also the chain's best November in more than a decade, Howard said. Sales in Lexington, which has all company-owned stores, were up 8.1 percent during the month.
In October, the chain completed the rollout of a series of physical updates at all 125 company-owned stores. That initiative included 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.
Nearly a quarter of the company's 100 franchisee-owned stores have completed the initiative, and the company will require it to be finished by the end of 2012, Howard said.
"We've proved the business case for it," he said.
Rob Hearden, president of the Fazoli's Franchise Association, said the results have been a "big improvement."
"Most franchisees at this point have bought into it and plan on getting it done," he said.
In 2012, the company also expects to add to its ranks of franchisee-owned restaurants, including the travel plaza in Fairmont, W.Va. It has its roots in Fazoli's corporate employees attending a petroleum conference on a whim this year.
"Coming out of that show, we signed three deals," Howard said. "And we haven't signed three deals in 10 years."
The opportunity is big for the company because travel plazas and large gas stations can have difficulty signing national restaurants when those brands already have locations at the same interstate exits, Howard said.
The Fazoli's restaurant will be smaller than usual because of the quicker turnover of customers but will feature a full menu, he said. The company plans to attend 10 petroleum conferences in 2012.
"We're going to target this because we think it's a real opportunity for us," he said.
Fazoli's also is close to confirming deals to open restaurants in non-traditional locations such as college campuses and airports, Howard said. One such location opened inside a St. Louis-area Wal-Mart in 2011, but he said the company would be targeting more non-retail locations going forward because they hold more promise.
The company's planned design for non-traditional restaurants also has changed and moves the kitchen out into the open in the front. The revised plan saves some room and emphasizes that the food is made to order.
Overall, the company expects to open up to a dozen new restaurants in 2012, and has even grander plans for signing up new locations.
"This is probably going to be seen as a bold statement, but we're looking at signing up anywhere from another 15 to 20 new units next year," Howard said. "It'll really get the brand going again."