Trends in Italian Food

This week we will be exploring the newest trends in Italian food for QSR and fast casual segments, with a focus on concepts that identify as other than pizza. This is simply because we covered that specific segment in June under: Hottest New Pizza Concepts.

Consumers want high-quality, fresh dishes as we all know, so the use of fresh, made in-house sauces and dressings, garden fresh vegetables and herbs, and freshly baked breads are all factors in bringing customers in your door. The customer expectation has now become the industry standard and cannot be ignored.

Included in NRN’s Hot Concept 2013 picks is Piada Italian Street Food. This concept features an Italian version of the pita, called the Piada. The concept has a Chipotle-esque ordering system, where you order through a line. They feature high quality ingredients with a pick-your-own custom PIada, salad, or pasta bowl menu format. Chris Doody, founder, developed the concept as he was inspired by the success of the Chipotle and Panera brands. He is also known for the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, which he started with his brother Rick. It has since been sold to Bruckmann Rosser Sherrill & CO. From the freshly made Piada flatbread to the mode of service, Piada embodies the eating revolution in QSR and Fast Casual Italian food.

Fazoli’s, a well-known and loved brand is planning to open a new fast casual concept based on the Piada model. The name has not yet announced but Fazoli’s plans to distinguish itself from its competition by the ingredients (23 fresh options) and sauces on its menu. Look for the opening of the first store by the end of 2013.

Sbarro, the other big hitter in the QSR category also plans to open a new concept modeled after Piada. Dubbing its concept Pizza Cuchinova, the first brick and mortar is expected to open soon in Columbus, OH.

Other concepts following this model include:

Italio Moderno Italian Kitchen: based out of Boca Raton, FL, there are currently 3 locations, with 3 more listed as ‘coming soon’ on their website.

Pellini Italian Eatery: based out of Scottsdale, AZ, the restaurant opened in October 2012, and has a very similar model to Piada as well.

Burrissimo: with one location in Costa Mesa, and another opening in Brea, they have dubbed their version of the Piada as the Italian burrito. It will be interesting to see if this branding of the Piada will be successful, who knows?

Cini: short for arancini, who brands itself as “Italian chow with heart” has 2 locations in the greater St. Louis area. Both opened this year.

Squisito’s (it means exquisite in Italian): an 8-store franchise in MD, founded by three 1st generation Italians, who previously owned restaurants in Italy. They also follow the fast casual model and have a rather extensive menu. Featured items include appetizers, salads, subs, pizza, pasta, and calzones.

Little Azio’s: still in its infancy, Little Azio’s is successful enough to gain a spot in Atlanta International Airport. It will open soon in the B Concourse, as part of a major renovation. Piadina wraps, Paninis, pizza, and pasta are the main attractions at the concept. The opening of this location will bring the chain to 5 locations.

Another interesting concept, Vapiano is a European concept that now has 11 stores open in the U.S., with another 3 slated to open in 2013. Internationally, they have 120 stores on 4 continents. Their main draw is that all ingredients are made in house. That includes pasta, YES, pasta! Not many restaurants can boast that claim in the Italian category, unless they are charging $40 for a plate of pasta. It will be curious see how well this concept plays out. They have 3 different stations at the restaurant, depending if you want pasta, salad, or pizza.

For something a little more casual, you can try Al’s Beef. The Al’s #1 Italian Beef is considered to be one of the best sandwiches in the country by Esquire and Today. They also offer Italian sausage, franks and wraps, calzones, and salads. They have recently inked a 30-unit franchise agreement for expansion within California, bringing total store count to around 45 stores.

In the dessert category, there is Paciugo’s Gelato and Caffe. The Dallas based company has almost 50 locations nationwide. They have an extensive range of flavors with 4 categories: Milk, Water-Sorbet, Soy, and No-Sugar-Added. The website has a great search tool that allows you to search by mood, or by the above-mentioned categories. There are over 100 flavors in the milk category alone, so Paciugo’s is guaranteed to have the flavor you crave.

One concept I found intriguing is Bomboloni, with stores in Rome and New York City; they are looking to further franchise the concept. They feature 20 different flavors and toppings for Bomboloni, a delicate Italian pastry filled with fruit and cream. Just looking at the menu made me hungry! Think of them as the Italian, much more stylish cousin of Dunkin’ Donuts. Flavors like blood orange, tira misu, and chestnut sets it apart from just any donut place. Make sure to visit them when you are in NYC!

Overall, this segment is woefully underdeveloped, with many of these concepts opening in the past 5 years. It is promising to see so many concepts in the infancy stage, but it will take some time to really tell who will emerge as the top concept in this category. I surely wouldn’t mind having a Bomboloni down the street from me, would you?

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