Why Sarpino’s pizzeria is one to watch


Scott Nelowet, director of franchise development for Sarpino’s Pizzeria, has been with fast casual for less than a year. Around this time, he quickly learned the key to attracting potential operators – the extensive Italian menu.

The brand has more than 60 specialty and gourmet pizzas. There are also about 20 calzones and sandwiches each, 11 salads, 12 pastas, five flavors of bone-in wings, and a variety of entrees. Among these choices, there are several vegan options. Not all selections are available at every restaurant, but the variety is still unmatched by most quick-service pizzas, and Nelowet knows it.

“[Sarpino’s] didn’t spend a lot of time doing press and conversations like this,” Nelowet says. “And so when I talk to people, a lot of them have never tasted the product before. And what’s great about Sarpino for me is that it’s the least of my worries. I know that once I enter the franchise process, I worry about all their business. I don’t have to worry about food at the end of the day. We’ll make them sit down, they’ll taste it. It’s a home run every time as they have the full Italian restaurant menu from pizza to pasta and tiramisu. And everything is fresh.

Nelowet was introduced in September 2021 to ensure that Chicago-based Sarpino’s is no longer a secret, both to operators and, by extension, consumers. The delivery/takeout-focused pizzeria entered the United States in 2002 and has since expanded to approximately 45 locations in Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Texas, Florida, Minnesota and Illinois. Sarpino USA acquired the domestic franchise rights in 2005 and has been in charge of growth ever since. For the first time, fast casual is advancing with a national franchise push.

Founder: David Chatkin, CEO

Headquarter: Chicago

Start year: 2005

Annual sales: 2021 US system-wide sales of $45,988,768

Total units: 45

Franchised units: 45

Sarpino’s U.S. President David Chatkin, who has been with the brand for 20 years, believes the timing of the expansion made sense, given how well the pizza chain’s operating model performed during the convenience rush. Sarpino’s has seen a double-digit increase in sales over the past few years, and the system-wide AUV is nearly $1.1 million.

The brand’s expansion plan targets markets where it already enjoys great success, including Florida and Kansas City, Missouri, where stores earn $1.3 million a year. Illinois, Colorado, Kansas and the Southeast are also under consideration.

“We’ve been through the COVID era for a few years,” Chatkin says. “It was an unknown time. But we’ve come out of this much stronger than before COVID, and we’re seeing good progress in the different states we’re in, and we’ve been able to prepare and build a franchise process internally. We have specialized in delivery for the last 20 years and after the COVID period, it’s a good business.

In addition to the menu, Nelowet believes operators will be most attracted to Sarpino’s technology infrastructure.

At the back of the house, a monitor is installed at each workstation. For example, if an online order comes in, it goes straight to the cook. Once the product is out of the oven, it goes to the pizza cutter, which has its own screen. Additionally, delivery drivers use an app that displays customer contact information, directions, how much they’ve driven, how much they’ve earned, and the number of orders they’ve delivered daily in real time. From inside the restaurant, managers can see where the drivers are and how far they are from returning to the store.

To simplify flows, the computer system automatically chooses delivery orders that go in the same direction, which means fewer drivers and less time on the road. Suppliers, inventory management information and third-party delivery aggregators are all digitally integrated, and the brand is working on artificial intelligence to take orders over the phone.

Nelowet says the technology is especially helping those who speak English as a second language. He remembers going to a restaurant in Coral Springs, Florida, where 40% spoke Spanish and 40% Ukrainian, but the staff worked together seamlessly thanks to unifying digital processes.

“I’ve never seen anything technically put together like Sarpino’s on any level. I’ve never seen such heavy use of technology,” says Nelowet. “So really, for someone who already owns any other brand, it will be very easy for them to add this to their portfolio.”

Before someone takes full control of a store, they go through “incredibly intense” training, Nelowet notes. Sarpino’s works with franchisees for months at its headquarters, then two executives work alongside operators in their restaurants for 30 days. During those few weeks, leaders help operators master the menu, oversee their own team, implement marketing strategies, engage customers, and more.

Such training is necessary to run the brand’s elevated scratch menu, Chatkin says. The pizza dough is prepared daily from 100% whole wheat flour, yeast, water, salt, olive oil, and is combined with crushed tomatoes and shredded mozzarella daily.

Although the menu is more complex, system-wide labor costs are maintained at 27%, a level that Nelowet describes as “pretty phenomenal”. The richest 50% represent on average 24%. Chatkin attributes this to the use of technology and the fact that Sarpino’s can charge more for its high-end items, generating revenue and a gross profit margin.

In areas where there are labor issues, the chain has no problem leveraging the services of third-party delivery companies.

“We have always considered third parties as an additional distribution channel. We never considered them a competitor,” Chatkin says. “If customers prefer to go through Uber Eats or DoorDash, we are there. We have agreements with all third parties and it is always a profitable model for us and we work with them.

Regarding the number of locations Sarpino’s will open, Nelowet believes the chain could open nationwide and have short-term commitments for 100 restaurants, but the team opts to focus on a manageable number of stores in its targeted coverage area.

Speaking to restaurateurs, Nelowet says 90% will tell you that the key to success is a good product and good locations. He does not agree. For him, the two most important factors are a good product and the person who operates the restaurant.

“If they care about their employees, they care about customers, people will find them anywhere, they will support them everywhere,” says Nelowet. “I’ve seen it over and over again. So one of the things we’re looking for is people who love other people. I mean, that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it’s important. It’s such an important thing in the restaurant to love people. That it goes so far in restaurants.


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