Revolution by Evolution

As Pizza Inn enters its 60th year in business, adaptation is how the classic pizza chain not only survives but thrives.

By Katie Lee

Turning 60 has never looked so fresh and flexible.

Pizza Inn, the iconic pizza buffet that first opened in 1958, knows the times are changing — and it knows how to change with them. The Dallas-based restaurant company currently offers a versatile lineup of 154 traditional Pizza Inn restaurants as well as four units of its new express concept, Pizza Inn Express (PIE), which is small and flexible enough to fit into non-traditional spaces like airport kiosks and convenience stores. A sister brand, Pie Five Pizza, is also growing — with 75 locations and 78 more under construction or in development. Proud parent company RAVE Restaurant Group sees the results of its adaptation to a changing market — and a brand revitalization that started in 2017 — beginning to pay off.

Scott Crane1“Having three unique brands really offers us the ability to bring delicious pizza into any market,” says Scott Crane, CEO of RAVE Restaurant Group. “Pie Five Pizza was developed because we saw a need to speed up the pizza process and create a more customized experience for guests. There was also a tremendous opportunity to expand our footprint into non-traditional locations like c-stores, entertainment venues and airports, so we created the PIE concept.”

Success over 60 years doesn’t happen by accident. Listening to consumers and adapting to the needs of any market is how Pizza Inn has maintained its industry edge. It recognized, earlier than most, that today’s industry views hot food programs as a major growth vehicle in non-traditional spaces — but it also recognized, better than most, that these programs operate very differently from traditional franchises.

Bob Bafundo head shot1“Brands that thrive in this environment are going to be the ones that are willing to design a business model that is better fit for the c-store operator,” says Bob Bafundo, president of Pizza Inn, of the $575 billion convenience store industry. “It’s important to understand how these businesses interact with the customer, compared to a traditional street side unit.”

“The key to growing a great brand isn’t just executing the original idea, but rather, continually evolving to meet consumer trends, tastes and occasions,” says Crane. “With Pizza Inn, PIE and Pie Five Pizza, we now have three great business models for every pizza occasion. Between all three concepts, we have almost 90 new commitments for development.”

Pizza Inn recently completed its fifth straight quarter of positive same-store sales. It also implemented an improved online ordering platform, all-day buffet, new point-of-sale system, off-site catering and launched a new rewards program. Thanks to remodels in existing markets and new growth by franchisees, Pizza Inn is experiencing a resurgence, with seven new buffets opening in 2017 and four more in development. Most Pizza Inn restaurants span 3,500 to 5,000 square feet.

Pizza Inn’s new little sister, the non-traditional brand PIE, can operate in as little as 52 square feet, and its kiosk or counter-service design is perfect for non-traditional locations. With units in convenience stores, malls, travel centers, airports and other retail outlets, PIE offers a smaller, faster way for the brand to reach new guests. PIE is currently operational in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport; Lake Kiowa, Texas; and, most recently, Houston. The Houston grab-and-go unit opened on June 6, 2018 inside a 24-hour travel center near the William P. Hobby Airport.

pizzainn1.1“The PIE concept is attractive to non-traditional operators because it allows them to move quickly, be more nimble and react to changes in customer traffic and facilities, all at minimal investment,” says Bafundo. “The reaction has been stellar. Sales have outpaced our projections and we have a lot of excitement building around the brand.”

Pie Five Pizza first opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011. It, too, is on the move and soon will unveil a smaller prototype (current locations run 1,200 to 1,500 square feet), a reimaged interior package, and a new logo and menu.

“All of our brands have evolved and are ready for the next phase of growth,” Crane says. “It’s very heartening to see our hard work gaining traction.”

— This article originally appeared as the cover story of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business’ July 2018 issue.