Jan. 30, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso
The Italian word “Squisito” translates loosely into “exquisite.” Gennaro DiMeo, founder of Squisito Pizza & Pasta, has used this descriptor as a benchmark for his establishment for more than 12 years. The chain embraces a fast casual ordering setup and price-point ($8-$10) while touting its full-service menu.
And while many restaurants rush to grow as big and as fast as possible, Squisito’s plans to take things slow and steady even as it embraces a newly created franchising plan.
The Maryland-based concept has expanded gradually since its inception and now includes nine locations throughout the state. The objective within the next two years is to continue at a conservative pace even with the franchise opportunities.
Squisito’s has certainly been around long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. For example, a few years ago, the company opened a quick-service model and operated it for a year before deciding it just didn’t fit its mold.
“(The QSR model) was never going to be everything we wanted,” said Michele DiMeo, chief operating officer/director of stores for MONTE Restaurant Development Group, Squisito’s parent company. “We had changed our core concept and then quickly realized that was a bad idea. We had been doing well through the bad economy, so we realized it wasn’t necessary to change something that works.”
Instead of changing, MONTE refocused entirely on its already existing concepts (which also include Carpaccio Tuscan Kitchen Wine Bar; Carmine’s Family Style Italian Kitchen; and Four Seasons Grille, run by DiMeo’s partners Gennaro DiBenedetto and Lino DiMeo) and decided to grow.
In 2008, the powers-that-be at Squisito’s decided they had a loyal enough fan base and a strong enough product to dip into the franchising waters.
They hired The Franchise Edge, a consultant company that helps clients launch franchising programs and, after two-plus years of researching, streamlining, organizing and solidifying the details, Squisito’s program officially launched in early January.
Franchising objective, program The expansion plan – to open five franchised units this year – is a bit on the conservative side for the company, but that’s the point, DiMeo said. “As far as growing, we want to do it right, just like we wanted to do the franchising details right and took our time with that,” she said. “Even though we did really well through the bad economy, we didn’t want to launch something and have the middle fall out because it was rushed.”
It also was important that the company extend its footprint close by so that it could have a hands-on operating approach and make sure everything was done consistently across the board. The goal is to stay on the East Coast and to open in markets such as New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Maryland.
“My husband (Gennaro) started off as a chef; this is his passion. He still teaches every manager to watch every dish that comes out of the kitchen,” DiMeo said. “We want to make sure we’re still able to have the time to put the work into it, to train and support our franchisees and to do what we’ve always done.”
While the company has approached its franchising program at full speed, it seems to be a bit more reluctant to embrace new marketing approaches. Squisito’s does have a Facebook page, although it’s currently anemic. That may change moving forward but, for now, the company is going to embrace traditional and local marketing efforts.
Franchise requirementsSquisito’s franchise requirements are basic: Location residency, $150,000 in working capital, good credit and restaurant or business experience.
Location requirements include:
Minimum of 2,000 to 3,000 square feet
Beer and wine license
Lifestyle or grocery-anchored centers catering to families with household incomes over $35,000
Prominent storefronts with defining architectural features
Attractive retail projects catering to busy soccer moms and daytime office workers
Retail co-tenancy that averages more than $350-$500 psf in annual sales
$50,000 people within 5 miles
Minimum of 30-foot frontage with outdoor seating
“This is where I’m a little stubborn/bullheaded. I came from the accounting world; we shunned Facebook because it can get very unprofessional,” DiMeo said. “We did create a page and it will be linked to our website and managed in-house, but we’re going to focus more on local marketing. Most of what we do is local.”
That includes philanthropic efforts such as sponsoring fundraisers for community, church or school organizations. Squisito’s also creates local mailers, contributes to Valpaks, participates in a twice-monthly email blast and distributes in-store feedback cards.
“The biggest advertising we do is for Valpak because it works well with a pizza concept. Our email blast has an 85 percent capture rate, so that is very effective as well,” DiMeo said. “The majority of our advertising is really done through word-of-mouth. That is one of the benefits of being concentrated locally for so long.”
Focus on the food With a chef running the show, Squisito’s focus has always been on its food. New York-style pizza is the chain’s signature item. Every sauce and crust is made from scratch and the company uses local ingredients except for tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, which are flown in from Italy.
In addition, Squisito’s serves pasta, antipasti, salads, subs and more. Not long ago, the company also added an extensive kids’ menu and an updated catering menu. “My husband is Italian and you can definitely tell. It’s very authentic food. I am a true believer that we have the best pizza around,” DiMeo said.
This confidence in the product is the impetus behind the expansion plan, regardless of the still-recovering economy or a packed pizza marketplace. And once Squisito’s gets past the growing pains of this first franchising year, DiMeo expects to pick up the pace. For year two, she also anticipates the company will spread its wings a little wider – doubling growth and entering into the Midwest, Atlanta and Florida markets.
“We get requests all the time to consider opening all over the country. Once you get a customer in here, they’re hooked,” DiMeo said. “If you have a great concept, menu, service and cleanliness, you don’t really worry about how saturated the market may be. We’re ready for this; we’ve been ready.”