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Q&A: Chef Anthony Russo

Texas chef talks building an Italian restaurant empire in the South

Chef Anthony Russo, creator of the Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen concepts, is building a small regional Italian empire in the South.

Russo, who opened the first Russo’s New York Pizzeria in Houston, Texas, in 1992, will open two more franchised stores in Arkansas and Florida this year, bringing the Italian chain to 29 units. The company currently has four company-owned pizzerias, 17 franchised New York Pizzeria units in Texas and Tennessee, and six franchised Coal-Fired Italian Kitchens, the first of which opened in 2008.

While most of Russo’s units are located in Texas, the openings this fall in Conway, Ark., and Pembroke, Fla., expand the brand’s footprint. His company is also seeking to franchise in Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Russo spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the concept and its growth plans.

What distinguishes your pizzeria and kitchen concepts from others in the Italian segment?

My background is as a chef, and I wanted to create some unique Italian dishes from my family recipes, like osso bucco and pappardelle with truffles. It’s a bit more upscale than a traditional Italian eatery. I use a coal-fired pizza oven to make our pizzas and also to cook Italian entrees.

What is the average check at each concept?

At the Kitchen, it is $24 to $25 per person. And the New York Pizzeria, it’s about $16 per person.

How do the two concepts differ in square footage and seating?

The Pizzeria is 1,500 square feet, to as large as 5,000 square feet. The smallest would be 44 seats and the largest 220 seats. For the Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, the minimum is 2,600 square feet, and as large as 6,000 square feet. The two largest stores are in McAllen and Corpus Christi, Texas.

What’s attractive about staying in the South for development?

The demographics are very good. And it’s not saturated with Italian eateries like New York and New Jersey. There’s opportunity for us here.

Tell us about the menu.

It emphasizes fresh Italian food. We don’t have a commissary. We like to give folks a tour of the kitchen. It is all fresh ingredients.

What are the best-selling items?

Pizza, for sure. And then pasta. The Italian Works pizza is pretty popular. It’s made with prosciutto, homemade Italian sausage, and pepperoni and fresh mozzarella.

What percentage of sales is to-go?

For the Pizzeria brand, it’s about 50-50. For the Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, it’s about 70 percent dine-in and 30 percent takeout.

What are the biggest challenges to growth in this economy?

Banks and funding. The financing is tough. Most of my franchisees are self-funded or raise capital through their family members.

What opportunities are you seeing in this market?

The real estate opportunities are great, especially in negotiating leases, getting better rental rates and negotiating build-out costs to our advantage. We still continue to find good pockets to fill in.

Is the Italian segment well-positioned to weather the economy?

Pizza and Italian together are at a good price point, and the quality is attractive to the consumer.

You are opening your first stand-alone Kitchen in Conway, Ark. What format are most of your other units?

Most are in strip centers and more suburban. The Coal-Fired Kitchens are located in more of the “lifestyle”-type centers.

What changes have you made to the concept recently?

We rebranded with a new logo and new menu design this year. We are also bringing all our own olive oil from Sicily. The chain uses Russo’s olive oil in everything from sauté to salad dressings. We are also bringing in cheeses from Italy.

You have some gluten-free pizzas. Are dietary concerns growing?

We have a lot of requests recently for gluten-free items on the menu, so we came up with a great crust that is gluten-free. It satisfies those customers with allergies. It had been a special for about six months, but we were selling quite a few, so we put it on the menu.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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