Fazoli's, America's favorite Italian fast-food chain, is on a sizzling growth streak right now, and instead of resting on its fettuccine, the company has decided to capitalize on its popularity by making some massive -- and possibly ill-advised -- changes, which turn the chain from fast-food to casual dining. Fazoli's is ditching the plastic plates in favor of actual dinnerware, training its cashiers to be servers, and having the managers serve as "concierges." So far, though, no menu price hikes are being reported, which means the company is trying to offer its customers a casual dining experience at fast-food prices.
This makeover could go one of two ways: It could work, giving Olive Garden a major competitor -- or it could murder-death-kill everything people love about Fazoli's.
Here is our list of five reasons why Fazoli's should not be a casual dining restaurant. Keep waiting for the breadstick person to come around -- it'll happen.
5. If it ain't broke, don't fix it quite so much.
Innovation is the hallmark of a good fast-food chain. Fazoli's has been around since the late '80s, and has made plenty of business decisions over the years that have worked very well. It's consistently upgraded its menu to suit taste trends -- hot subs, pizza, paninis, zero-cal trans-fat items -- and while it suffered a rough patch in the early 2000s thanks to the Atkins diet debacle, Fazoli's bounced back with force when dieters remembered that pasta is delicious.
This chain is one of the cleanest, most cost-effective places for families, and its spaghetti and meat sauce and golden-buttered breadsticks are arguably better than those at Olive Garden -- with a far smaller price tag. Since Fazoli's has been doing it right for so long, making a giant leap into the next-tier-above market is risky: Diners love the larger portions with the leaner bill, and seem okay with the sacrifice of full-service. It stands to reason that Fazoli's is going to have to either cut portions, raise prices -- or both -- to stay competitive in casual dining, thus eliminating the top two reasons why it gets so many butts-in-booths in the first place.
4. Wage slavery equals less-than-awesome employees. There has been no mention of whether Fazoli's employees are being given an appropriate pay-bump for having to train for these upgraded tasks. Fast-food chains are notorious for adding more responsibilities to staff while neglecting to work out an equitable pay differential, and Fazoli's is a minimum-wage job for regular employees, with associate managers in the $8-$12 an hour range, and managers making around $18-$20 per hour. These payscales aren't luxurious, but typical for fast-food workers. Paying managers and hourly people more money for the added work and turning cashiers into tipped servers would be a natural progression, but if Fazoli's chooses to keep wages low, then it definitely leaves itself open to more turnover, less desirable employees, and a disgruntled, overworked staff. Fazoli's has gotten favorable marks for customer service in the past, and it would be a sniveling shame to see that die off.
3. The expectations game.
Customers who eat at Fazoli's generally expect decent portions; a big, clean dining room; all the breadsticks they can swallow, and a check size commensurate with a trip through the drive-thru at any other fast-food chain restaurant. Fazoli's is setting the bar up towards the ceiling by offering all of those things, plus tableware, table service and concierge service -- that's gonna take some getting-used-to -- and all of the added expenses and annoyance that these come with. But raising customer expectations too high can end up being an enormous burden, because where do they go next? Crystal chandeliers? Valet parking? Tableside panini presses? Good f*cking luck squeezing all that in with $4 entrée prices.
2. What about the children?
Fazoli's is the pasta-filled promised land for harried parents. The kid's meals are ample and cheap, there are free children's meals promos all the time, the staff is used to mobs of screaming shorties, and it's difficult for your untamed brood to piss off diners at the surrounding tables, because they all have a flock of lambs slurping noodles, too.
Sure, the employees are stuck cleaning up after the swarms of tiny locusts, but up until now they haven't had to wait hand and foot on tired, cranky parents and energetic, cranky kids. The servers are the ones who may suffer here, because even if they are magically transformed into tipped waiters, families are some of the most demanding customers -- and worst tippers. If Fazoli's is going to go in the casual dining direction, maybe it should really be innovative and set up partitioned kiddie dining areas -- complete with troughs, rubber mats and garden hoses for cleanup. The parents get to eat their chopped salads in peace, there is only one cleanup depot for employees, and everybody wins.
1. Necessity is the mother of invention -- and unnecessary can be a motherf*cker.
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All of these changes are indeed innovative for a fast-food chain, but there are better ways for Fazoli's to innovate. Restaurant business on any tier is all about the menu, the service and the location. Fazoli's has the location part covered -- beautifully-devised strip-mall-adjacent real estate -- and the service wasn't a concern before, so why not up the ante on the food rather than go bougie with the service? Fazoli's should stick to doing what it does best, which is offering big portions of pasta and sauce on the cheap.
People's palates are much more sophisticated than they were in 1988, and there is no end to the combinations of pastas and sauces that Fazoli's could come up with to pump up the menu. Diners are intrigued by specialty mushrooms, artisan cheese sauces, fresh produce, local ingredients -- and if you add a squirt of truffle oil to anything, watch customers scramble to order whatever it is. Make salads with spring mix greens and offer whole-grain breadsticks, and maybe throw in an heirloom tomato or two.
And the best advice of all for Fazoli's? Bring back the oven-warm chocolate chip cookie person who criss-crosses the dining rooms with the breadstick person. That would gain you far more customers than having managers roam the dining room with affected manners, and making half-hearted servers chauffeur chicken fettuccine Alfredo to customers who can really walk the few feet to the counter to get it themselves.