As a kid growing up in Chicago, Erik Frederick would regularly go downtown with his parents to eat at Pizzeria Uno. Frederick remembers those outings fondly.
“My family used to go there every Sunday night,” Frederick says. “My wife and I went on our first date there. People come together over pizza.”
Now, decades later, Frederick is the CEO of Uno Pizzeria and Grill and he’s leading the brand into new territory as it looks to accelerate growth. The brand recently announced a new franchising opportunity in which hotel operators can convert existing spaces into Uno units.
The strategy comes as Uno looks to expand without increasing its company-owned footprint.
“To materially grow the number of company restaurants would have been financially prohibitive,” Frederick says.
Although the program is relatively new, the brand has already transformed three hotel venues in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, which have seen an uptick in business compared to company averages. More partnerships are expected as the concept showcases profitability.
Frederick estimates that most hotels break even at best when it comes to food and beverage programs and lose money because of takeout pizza.
“[Hotels] don’t see a nickel of that,” he says. “We can definitely help them with that.”
From Uno’s view, converting sites is cost effective and removes much of the site selection permitting, and licensing hurdles. As for hotel benefits, Frederick says Uno is better suited to attract outside customers than other concepts because of its recognition as the founder of deep dish pizza.
Although the style is considered a Chicago specialty, the CEO thinks Uno’s product is marketable all over the country, since the menu features burgers, signature salads, cheesy garlic bread, mozzarella sticks, and chicken wings. For those wanting a lighter dish, Uno also offers a thin crust. To mitigate long cooking times associated with deep dish pizza, the company upgraded its oven technology so that food can be ordered and served in under 30 minutes.
“There’s great deep dish places in Chicago, but having great pizza doesn’t mean you can expand it,” he says. “When you think about some of the pizza brands in the category, Uno is a great brand to partner with compared to others. We’ve got the existing franchise infrastructure in place because we’ve been doing it for 40 years. We operate 30 restaurants ourselves, so we’ve got skin in the game in terms of operations.”
Uno will assist with logistical and operational support, including supply chain management, marketing, and training, meaning franchisees won’t have to do deal with the typical obstacles of opening a new restaurant, Frederick says. But he also knows hotel operators are more prepared to jump into franchising because of their hospitality background.
“They’re entrepreneurs who know how to live within the guardrails,” he says. “We’ve got everything to help them be successful right out of the gate. … It’s really a fairly low cost, which seems like a real win for them.”
When it comes to determining who to partner with, Frederick says the most important factor is having passion. Since being named CEO in April 2020, he’s made it a priority to ensure franchisees genuinely care about the brand, and he’s turned down potential partnerships in the past because the fit wasn’t right.
“I inherited a really good culture here,” he says. “People who work for Uno really love this brand and would do anything for it. That’s a big thing we look at when assessing new franchisees. It’s better business to work with people who are easy to partner with.”
Frederick says hotel quality and existing infrastructure are equally important. Having a full kitchen is significant, but not a deal breaker if the site is willing to build a restaurant space. The executive described Delta Hotels by Marriot—a four-star venue based primarily in North America—as a “really good, sweet spot for us.”
In addition to hotels, Uno Pizzeria is also franchising a new prototype that leverages a design and style similar to the original Pizzeria Uno restaurant in Chicago. The model comes with a customizable floor plan that encourages operators to enter second-generation spaces that invoke a unique feel as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Uno also plans to open takeout/delivery–only locations, strictly as a supplement and “return on investment kicker,” as Frederick puts it.
With only three hotel conversions completed so far, the CEO says there is plenty of whitespace. Agreements in Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina are in preliminary stages.
“If we can help them [hotel operators] do something interesting while making them some more money, this is a good deal for them. And for us, it helps us scale. They already understand hospitality and with the potential for multi-unit deals, it helps scale faster than on an individual level.”