Sbarro, Stepping Up Its Game

For many Americans, including this writer who grew up in Western Michigan, our first pizza-by-the-slice experience very likely took place at a Sbarro location at a mall food court. For me, the concept was beyond novel. Unlike traditional pizzerias — where everybody had to agree on toppings — Sbarro allowed diners to pick from a wide array of slices hanging out under heat lamps.

Now, to anybody who lives in New York (or cities with a "NY-style" slice joint), this is pretty old hat. But for a Midwestern boy raised on soggy, scrawny Little Caesar's slices, a trip to the Maple Hill Mall for a GIANT triangle slice loaded with mushrooms, pepperoni, broccoli, sausage or whatever they were serving that day was a real treat.

But Sbarro has recently fallen on hard times. The chain — founded in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn 56 years ago by Italian immigrants — filed for bankruptcy in 2011, with over $400 million of debt on the books. After shuttering dozens of stores and securing a fresh line of credit, the company emerged from bankruptcy eight months later and named a new chief executive, James J. Greco, to turn things around. And as the New York Times reports today, the company is on its way to recovery.

Inspired by the success of so-called "fast casual" chainlets 800 Degree Pizza and Naked Pizza, Sbarro is placing an emphasis on quality — and speed. From the NYT story:

The company is now shipping whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, which are put through a food mill as needed and made into a sauce with minimal ingredients at the restaurants. Cheese is shipped in blocks and shredded on site as well.

Sbarro is also installing open-flame ovens that will add "theater" to the dining experience and cut the time it takes to bake a pie, or reheat the slices. Greco consulted with an unnamed pizzeria in his hometown of New Haven, CT. (We have our suspicions). And granted, we never endorse visiting chains over the local guy. But if you find yourself in a Midwestern food court, Sbarro might soon be a better choice than the Chinese buffet or Cinnabon. Also, did we mention that Cinnabon was our first cinnamon roll? Midwest represent!

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