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   Going Through Changes

The front of pizza houses have evolved over the past two decades.

Two decades ago, just eating out was exciting. People didn't dine out as often, so good food was satisfaction enough. "There wasn't much to look at in a pizza restaurant back then," says Jim Treliving, co-CEO and founder of Boston Pizza Restaurants, which will double its U.S. locations to 24 this year, and has 170 stores in Canada and one in Mexico. "They all had similar furnishings," says Treliving, recalling design schemes that might include a marble statue in the corner. "Candles on the table were how you decorated." Customers now expect more.

Boston Pizza Restaurant has gone from a simple walk-in and sit-down place where everything stayed the same, to what Treliving calls "the experience" customers want. "Someone greets guests at the door and takes them to a table," he says. "People want to be catered to now." To that end, the chain delivers a lively decor with much more activity. Modern music is tailored to a particular location's patrons, as is television programming. The restaurants' full service bars (previously wine and beer were served) show news or sports channels, depending on crowd demographics, which vary between lunch, dinner and late night. "At one of our restaurants near Microsoft, we have the stock market on T.V. at lunch," says Treliving. "In the evening, we show sports so they can unwind."

Treliving believes "adaptability" is crucial to attract and keep today's customers. Flexibility encompasses everything from lighting to what servers wear. Boston Pizza Restaurants are bright and airy with lots of natural sunlight by day, yet switch to subdued lighting and neon accents in the evening. "Uniforms are unisex now, and colorful," Treliving says, remembering the crisp white shirts worn with dark bottoms from the past. "In college towns, we dress servers in football uniforms. And baseball uniforms in the summer."

The availability of more varied décor items has increased restaurants' or chains' ability to individualize or "trademark" interior schemes, too. Boston's Treliving says that typical steel and vinyl chairs, similar to what was in a kitchen at home, used to be the bulk of what restaurant supply companies carried.

Restaurant consultant Izzy Kharasch, President of Hospitality Works, agrees things have changed. "Pizza restaurants have undergone a total makeover in the last two decades," Kharasch says. "The pizzeria used to be a place where families went for a cheap meal. In terms of perception, pizza restaurants are totally different now." He mentions California Pizza Kitchen as an example of the pizzeria's transformation to upscale, serving a broader audience with higher check averages.

Formal touches have accompanied this transformation. According to Bruce Botchman, president of White Plains Linen, more and more pizzerias are choosing to upgrade. "Twenty years ago, we provided mostly behind-the-scenes items like uniforms and chef's coats," Botchman says. "Now, we do a lot of table linen and cloth napkins for pizza restaurants. They also use different colored linens to decorate."

Kharasch says speed of service is also more important today. Two-income families mean more customers opt for take-out, and customers' needs shape front of the house change. There are more take-out only restaurants, nowadays, where décor is little more than a bench for waiting until the pizza is done. Some restaurants even offer drive-through windows to serve customers on the run.

Even for restaurants with an in-house dining room, serving their take-out only customers quickly is a priority. Five years ago, New England chain Papa Gino's added credit card service to its 164 locations. To further cater to customers in a hurry, the chain has altered its use of space. "We carve a delivery zone into our restaurants," says Lew Shaye, senior vice president of brand and product development for Papa Gino's. "Separate registers allow swift service for phone-ahead guests. We've also put in electronically heated pizza warmers to keep take-out orders hot." This is a step up from boxes placed atop the oven or stacked on a counter.

Other front of the house changes include self-service beverage bars. Making more room for beverage bars and take-out counters meant rearranging space, but Papa Gino's has removed the once popular salad bar in favor of ready-to-eat salads, leaving room for their quick-serve additions.

Like most pizzerias, Papa Gino's has updated its décor to meet the changing tastes of the public. "We evolve just as society and people do," says Shaye, explaining that certain "strings of continuity" remain, keeping elements of Papa Gino's heritage. "The décor varies from location to location, but we still have gingham-printed, laminated tables. And our buildings typically have awnings, for instance."

Furnishings in Papa Gino's are much the same now as they were 20 years ago.

"Although, the materials may be different," Shaye explains. "Typically, we've used light oak wood, for instance, but we've recently begun using other woods, which look similar but are more durable."

Durability and performance are always key. Slotted wooden menu boards, which resulted in gaps between letters, have been phased out. Backlit menu boards allow for enticing, full color food pictures, and are an attractive way to advertise product while providing a sensible function.

Papa Gino's other front of the house heritage elements include pizzas made in full view of customers. "And they always will be," says Shaye, explaining that there will always be room for that home-made image in their restaurants. Even with changes to keep up to date, the running belief behind Papa Gino's success is as Shaye says: "Food transcends the environment."

Other pizzerias hold a similar sentiment, and are successful in doing so. "Whenever I go home to Pennsylvania," says Kharasch, "I eat at Barnaby's, which is still the same friendly neighborhood pizzeria I went to as a kid. You expect and want some family-owned places to stay the same."

Tony Salciccia, founder and owner of Tony & Alba's Pizza in California, has banked on that belief. "I don't study the competition," says Salciccia, who began with what he calls a "little hole in the wall" in 1982. He now owns six restaurants and a commissary. "We still have the same red, white and green colors," says Salciccia, who has always shied away from trendy ideas, believing the colors of Italy's flag are good enough. "People want good food and friendly service. Nothing much has changed."

Sheri McGregor is a Escondido, California freelancer. If you have questions or comments, contact Jeremy White.




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