In the restaurant industry, where concepts often burn out in less than a year, making it to five years—or even a decade—is a monumental feat. The Old Spaghetti Factory is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.
For perspective, Sally and Guss Dussin opened the Portland, Oregon-based company and began serving up its famous spaghetti when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, gas was 35 cents per gallon, and The Beatles released their final album as a group. Since opening in 1969, the Old Spaghetti Factory has expanded across the U.S. without losing sight of the values the Dussins created the company around.
“We were young and full of aspiration. We trusted Guss’ instincts in the restaurant industry and believed in the simplicity of delicious, affordable three-course meals,” 90-year-young Sally Dussin, co-founder, The Old Spaghetti Factory, said in a statement. “We also wanted to create a unique dining experience that was warm and welcoming for guests of all ages, which led to our design, inside and out.”
Guss and Sally’s son, Chris, who is now chairman of the company, has been a part of the company since its inception. He was about 13 years old when the original Old Spaghetti Factory opened.
Dussin says it was a natural move to begin working in the family business.
“My dad was in the restaurant business when I was growing up, as was my grandfather before him here in Portland, so I kind of grew up going to my dad’s restaurants,” he says. “I think I was 14 when I first started bussing tables. We made a trip up to Seattle because we had opened a Spaghetti Factory up there at spring break and that was probably the first time that I bussed tables and helped out a little bit.”
Dussin continued to work in the restaurant throughout high school and into college. He was able to see how everything from the kitchen to management operated in a restaurant.
However, he wasn’t always sure he would stick around. He says, “There were certainly times where, especially in high school, I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the business. From when I was a teenager my dad would always be talking to me about, ‘well you’re going to be in the company and someday you’ll run the business,’ so he always planted the seed. Let’s put it that way.”
After spending time in California in the late 1970s, Dussin returned home to work in the company’s offices to learn “more about the corporate side of things.” During this experience, Dussin still missed California. He was able to convince his father to let him open up a store in Fullerton, California, and lead the project from the ground up.
“I got to be part of the construction of the store and then open it up and I ran it for three years,” he says. “I still own it today but it was great experience for me to be out on my own and see what it was like to start something up and have to own it and pay for it, and run it.”
The Fullerton location was a turning point for Dussin. Now that he had his own piece of the company and was able to see a project from start to end, Dussin felt like he was able to grow while running the business over three years. He saw it as a sign he was meant to be in the family business.
“It was a little different feel I think that I felt like it was mine. It gave me a little time to grow, too,” he says. “I was in my late 20s when I went down there, I think I was 28. And then I came back here when I was around 31 or so and started doing more things at the office working with my dad and starting to learn more of the details of the business—negotiating leases, looking at sites, and the operations—you pick up on a lot of things when you’re around it in this environment whether its purchasing or marketing.”
Dussin served as the company’s president from 1997–2015 when he moved into the chairman position and his brother-in-law, Dean, took over as president.
“It’s more than just a business, I think to us it’s a family,” Dussin says. “The fun part of coming here every day still is all the long-term employees we have that have been with us for 30 to 40 years. There’s just not many companies that I think that are in that position anymore especially in the restaurant industry. I’m proud we’ve made it to 50 and hopefully we can continue on down the road.”
Relevance through innovation
The restaurant industry is as competitive as ever, and The Old Spaghetti Factory recognizes the need to remain innovative with menu items and stay on trend with flavor in order to keep guests flowing through the door.
Over 50 years, menus are destined to change. The original iteration, which once featured spaghetti and veal, has expanded to include salads, appetizers, and chicken dishes. All of which add variety for customers, Dussin says.
“There’s no doubt that our menu has evolved,” he says. “It was very limited in the beginning with spaghetti and sauces. But as time went on and competition started to grow in our markets we started adding some chicken dishes and things. [My dad] felt like people in those days wanted a little more variety.”
Each menu decision is made with value in mind. Some past dishes weighed down the kitchen and were removed because it they stuffed throughput. The Old Spaghetti Factory simplified systems over the years to keep menu prices down without sacrificing quality.
“For us, we are still about volume and value with the price side, so we have to do the volume in order to make the restaurant successful,” Dussin says. “The only way you can do that is if you have a system that’s simplistic and not too complicated where you can get the food out. We still have nights where we do over 1,000 people for dinner, so that’s really been the key to it.”
Five decades later, Dussin believes the concept behind the Old Spaghetti Factory is still approachable for guests young and old. He says, “Everybody likes pasta. So, it’s kind of in that category of foods that people are used to eating and something you look forward to.”
Besides consistently producing high-quality dishes, the company is focused on maintaining its well-guarded culture. This is achieved, Dussin says, by hiring the right employees and ensuring the guest experience is consistent each time customers walk through the doors. It might seem like a simple set of guidelines to follow, and it is. But maintaining these standards is the key reason The Old Spaghetti Factory has stayed relevant for so long, Dussin says.
“We’re still here because we’ve been consistent in what we’ve done for 50 years,” Dussin says. “And once you get to be our age if you are consistent you kind of become part of the community, part of the fabric of that community, so then people start looking at it like well that’s our Spaghetti Factory.”
A design that ages well
Another aspect of the Old Spaghetti Factory that has remained steady since 1969 is the décor. Sally Dussin dreamed up a unique experience, one that involved trolleys and classy antique lighting. Guests would be welcomed with “bed-booths,” Tiffany-style chandeliers, stained glass displays, and cozy wood interiors inside the trolley.
The original Spaghetti Factory trolley, which is still in use at the South Waterfront Portland location, was found in a field near Reed College in Portland. As accessibility became an issue, the brand began to build trolley replicas on the ground.
Even at the age of 90, Sally Dussin still comes into the office and advises on design.
Chris says in a statement, “Mom and Dad had a deal—he took care of the food and kitchen side of the restaurants and she handled the design. It worked out really well, and for decades guests have enjoyed the food and atmosphere.”
Growth goes forward
The family-owned company’s growth strategy over the years wasn’t so much about breaking into as many markets as quickly as possible, but strategically expanding when the right opportunities arose. Restaurants opened in Seattle, followed by Spokane, Tacoma, and San Jose, California. Today, the company owns and operates 42 U.S. locations.
“Once he got where there was four or five stores I think he felt like from there he could kind of branch out to other areas of the country,” Dussin says of his dad. “He realized it was more than just a Portland concept, and then we started to expand out and away from home.” The Old Spaghetti Factory made its way to Salt Lake City, Denver, and the company opened more locations in Southern California.
People would approach Guss with different opportunities or have old buildings they thought would fit well with the brand’s aesthetics. This strategy directed The Old Spaghetti Factory’s growth rather than forcing it to go into a specific market, Dussin says.
Unlike other companies that dive into markets with plans to construct new buildings, The Old Spaghetti Factory tries to take over older, historic buildings. “In some places we’ve taken old buildings that are historic even and rehabbed them and brought them back to life,” Dussin says. “People in the community wherever we’ve gone and done that love that they feel like we’ve kind of reclaimed their history, and the Spaghetti Factory is part of it now.”
“It’s not just slap up a building that’s a prototype and put your sign up and open it. It’s not a Chili’s,” he adds. “There’s nothing wrong with those companies, Chili’s or Olive Garden or any of the rest of them, they’re good companies, but they don’t generate that kind of excitement and personal connection to the guest that we do.”
As the company ages, the buildings are, too. The upkeep is not cheap for these large spaces and The Old Spaghetti Factory is constantly reinvesting money. That’s simply one of the realities of having a brand that’s been around for five decades, Dussin says. When stores have been up and running for 25 years, at some point upgrades will need to be made.
Even with the cost of maintenance going toward older locations, The Old Spaghetti Factory hasn’t slowed down construction of new locations. Over the last 15 months, the company has opened four new stores. Thanks to good opportunities, Dussin says, “We’re seeing that we’re getting more opportunity to grow because there aren’t a lot of people that can take a 10,000- or 12,000-square-foot space anymore.”
A comfortable growth rate for the company is two new locations per year. “We feel good through cash flow and things that we’re generating that we could [do that],” Dussin says.
However, Dussin, like his father, won’t turn down an opportunity if it makes sense for the company. The focus of growth is shifting toward the Midwest, where Dussin says wages and cost of doing business is less expensive.
A new store in Wichita, Kansas, is slated to open sometime this summer.
“We feel like we’ve got lots of areas around the country that we’re not in that we can expand to,” Dussin says. “We feel good about where we’re going and what the future brings.”
The franchising debate
While they’ve talked about franchising, Dussin says, the company hasn’t gone down that road because it can turn into more of a headache in the end. Dussin jokes that he considers some family members who own multiple units franchisees, but the company hasn’t gone further than that.
“We still have the two locations in Japan that are franchises that we’ve had for a long time but we’re not really pursing going to other places to franchise,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of interest from other people in different countries coming to us now and wanting to go that route, but I don’t know. It just complicates things. You’ve got to pick the right partner, you’ve got to have somebody who’s going to follow your recipes and not want to change things. It’s one more thing to worry about.”
The Old Spaghetti Factory According to the Numbers:
Since January 10, 1969:
- 22 million pounds of Mizithra has been served at The Old Spaghetti Factory.
- 142 million spumoni scoops have created just as many smiles.
- Upward of 80 million loaves of freshly baked bread have been presented to patrons upon arrival.
- Guests have eaten 10,394,729,409 feet of spaghetti (enough to travel to the moon and back over four times)
- The most popular menu item by far is the Spaghetti with Mizithra Cheese and Browned Butter, a Dussin family recipe.
- The dish almost didn’t make it on the menu. When Guss Dussin originally applied for his business and liquor license he was told he needed to add one more item to the menu. That item: Spaghetti with Mizithra Cheese and Browned Butter.
- The Cotton Candy Limeade is The Old Spaghetti Factory’s most photographed beverage.