While known for its Chicago-style pizza, Pizzeria Uno is actually based in Boston. As the restaurant chain grows, it’s trying to embrace all kinds of pizzas, from Detroit style to the traditional Chicago style.
“When you really get down to our ethos, we stand for amazing pizza,” CEO Erik Frederick said.
The 80-unit chain wasn’t always based in Boston. When it was founded in 1943 by former University of Texas football star Ike Sewell and his friend, former World War II G.I. Ric Riccardo, Chicago was its home. In 1978, Sewell decided to franchise as Uno Restaurant Holdings Corporation, the eventual parent company of the whole brand. The company officially took over in the ’90s after Sewell’s death, when his widow sold off everything.
The parent company’s CEO Aaron Spencer promised not to tamper with the pizza at the original locations: Pizzeria Uno in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago, and Pizzeria Due just a few blocks away.
The menu at Pizzeria Uno is smaller than the menus at the franchised locations, since Spencer promised not to mess with them.
Spencer came from a franchising background with a couple of KFC locations in the New England area before Uno’s began franchising.
Uno has long been a business about reaching everyone in a casual setting, not a formal dining room. According to Frederick, the goal is for the restaurant to feel like “the family room, not the formal dining room.”
Frederick became the CEO in April 2020, two years after coming on board as the chief financial officer. It was his background that helped the brand finally reach its positive net new unit growth for the first time in 15 years.
Uno now has more franchised units than owned units.
The chain’s next big path forward is in hotels.
Frederick believes hotels are the next big thing for Uno, and he’s investing big-time in it.
“They’re already franchisees, so they know the guardrails part, but the most important thing is these guys get hospitality,” he said.
The most expensive part of a new restaurant, according to Frederick, is the back-of-house elements, but at a hotel, they’re already there. This creates operational efficiencies that Frederick feels he can build on.
He says that while every Uno has a feeling — think family dining room with pictures on the wall — they don’t need to look identical. So, if the restaurant is painted green, they’re not going to paint it yellow for the sake of uniformity. It’s better, he said, because it actually makes each location different and unique.
The units in hotels are seeing “double to triple” pre-COVID revenue. Part of that is because the hotel is more likely to recommend the hotel restaurant over another restaurant in town.
On top of that, Grubhub and DoorDash are also bringing in more money from local residents who are familiar with the Uno brand.
“We’re this heritage brand, and we’ve got a soul,” Frederick said.
That, he believes, is what makes Uno stand out in a crowded market. Now that the company is opening more units than it’s closing, it’s a new chapter for the 80-year-old brand.
Not every location can be an “ode to Chicago” because people wouldn’t recognize that. Instead, each location will embrace its local culture.
Uno just opened a unit in a hotel in Winchester, Va. There’s a lot of George Washington paraphernalia in the restaurant because that’s what locals know and love about the area. It’s models like this that make Frederick hopeful about the future.
Another thing that Frederick did when he took over was trim the menu, because it had gotten bloated over the years.
“You can’t be everything to everyone,” he said. “If you’ve got a ton of recipes, I don’t care how good they are, you’re going to be inconsistent.”
The chain went from around 130 units down to 85 and plans to hover in the mid-eighties for the near future.
Uno wants to be known for great pizza. Frederick said he brought the focus back to the chain’s pizza. The newest menu item set to roll out soon is Tavern-style pizza, which is another type of Chicago pizza. This comes following other pizzas the chain is trying, which include Detroit-style, thin-crust pizza, and more.
The Chicago-style pizza, however, has its advantages.
“They were originally designed to get you to order more beer,” Frederick said. “And then they thought like, wait a minute, we can make more money selling pizza.”
The pizza takes about 20-40 minutes to cook and prepare, so time is of the essence when it comes to alerting customers that they may need to wait a bit. Hence the beer.
The most popular menu items? All pizza.
“Deep-dish pizza followed by thin crust followed by Detroit-style,” Frederick concluded.