The 60-year-old brand is generating positive sales and reigniting growth once again.
The year was 1958. Eisenhower was president, the hula hoop was introduced, and NASA arrived on the scene. And the first Pizza Inn opened. While Pizza Inn may not have changed the world like NASA, the restaurant, which featured high-quality pizza made from three types of homemade dough and pitchers of beer, left an impression. That same impression is bringing customers back to the restaurant decades later.
Headquartered in the Dallas Forth Worth area, 152 Pizza Inn restaurants can be found throughout the Southeast and Southcentral part of the U.S., with another 60 outside of the country. Yet at one point, there were 500 Pizza Inns across 20-plus states. What enabled Pizza Inn to balloon to such large numbers, and what caused the restaurant to constrict?
Pizza Inn, unlike many of its competitors, focuses on the buffet concept. Because of this, it needs more square feet than the typical pizza joint. Bob Bafundo, president of Pizza Inn, notes the standard Pizza Inn is about 4,000 square feet. The larger size of the restaurant brings about certain challenges, including potentially higher occupancy costs as well as real estate availability.
At its founding and through the early years, Pizza Inn focused on smaller markets in the South. For many of these areas, Pizza Inn was the only game in town. However, as the franchise sought growth, it began moving into major metros. There it faced increased competition from brands that typically had multiple units in the area compared to just one Pizza Inn. During this period, Bafundo says, "Some had a sense that Pizza Inn was more about franchising and not doing a good job of operating at a consistently high level."
Eventually, the number of Pizza Inns shrank, which led to some soul searching for the brand. "We had to come to grips with who we are," Bafundo says. He points to a 2016 study, completed for Pizza Inn by an outside agency, as key to helping the restaurant understand its purpose and give it direction moving forward.
"People come to Pizza Inn because it feels like family. We know people on a first-name basis and treat them well," Bafundo says.
Scott Crane, CEO of the Rave Restaurant Group, parent of Pizza Inn and fast casual Pie Five, says, "The research determined that Pizza Inn had a powerful heritage. People felt a nostalgia for the restaurant because they grew up with it, and it was part of their hometown." Pizza Inn’s small-town vibe was a powerful differentiator.
The information also helped Pizza Inn fine-tune its operational focus and growth map. Pizza Inn is now keyed on the dine-in experience and out-executing its buffet peers. While the margins can be greater in other segments, especially in regards to fast casual and takeout/delivery-focused concepts, it's a crowded space. This has left a void in the experience-driven, buffet arena, and that is the universe Pizza Inn wants to own.