Secrets to growing a restaurant: Fazoli’s CEO with local connection tells all

Fazoli’s CEO Carl Howard is credited for turning the brand around.

Fazoli’s restaurants have undergone significant development over the last decade.

The Italian-style restaurant, founded in 1988, operates 213 company-owned or franchise-operated locations in 26 states.

Fazoli’s CEO Carl Howard — a native of Kettering and a 1983 graduate of Fairmont East High School — has been credited with helping turn around the struggling chain since his appointment as CEO in 2008. The chain has used the Dayton market to test new menu items and opened its seventh location on Miller Lane in Butler Twp. in August 2014.

Howard recently sat down with the Dayton Daily News to discuss the success of the restaurant.

Q: What was Fazoli’s like when you first took over as CEO in 2008?

A: When I got here it was more of a survival mode. So that was probably the first six or eight months was ‘okay, let’s just figure out how we’re going to survive.’ I didn’t realize how damaged the brand was. And I was really fortunate, not only to have the opportunity, but to have the previous experience of going into a location or a business where it was in disrepair. And so we got out of survival mode.

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And then we went into repair mode … I actually went in and spent almost three weeks working in a restaurant before I even walked into the office… We cook food ahead, we prepared products ahead…And we were using microwaves, hot holding boxes, and all sorts of goofy stuff. I’m like, we’re getting out of this business—we’re going to compete on quality and service.

Q. What did you do to help build the brand?

A: We changed everything but the bread sticks. The bread sticks only went through one small minor change, and we changed it right back. And the brand went from being negative 10 to flat … I knew we had to do more with the brand, and I had this idea…

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We painted (the stores) and did new awnings but we also went to traditional plates. And then we did something that no one in our price point was doing, we went to providing service after the point of sale. One of the things I noticed in consumer studies and then through my own experience, our service environment wasn’t very guest friendly. We would hand you a pager and you basically now became an employee. And I just hated that… I as a consumer just hated the experience when I would come into my own restaurant.

So we went with real silverware, real plates. Then we started running the food out to the guests…And the brand just took off. We went from flat to plus 10. We were now growing sales on a two-year basis. And we had a period of time, probably all the way until the summer of last year, where we were just on fire.

Q: What are the plans for Fazoli’s moving forward?

A: We’re kind of working through a new phase now. So we went kind of through the survive, and then the repair and then a little bit of prosper from all of that. And now we’re really in the growth and reconstruction phase of the business. Over the course of the next two or three years, not only are we opening a lot of restaurants, we’ve already opened 10 this year which is a record for us, we’re signing new franchisees…and we’re working on a major remodel program. I can’t wait to remodel the Dayton market. We’re trying to be creative right now on the remodels to get as many as we can done, because we work out of our own cash flow…

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We spent $450,000 a location and they look like a brand new prototype. And the sales went up 12.5 percent and the traffic went up 12.7 percent. And what that showed me was we’re leaving 12 percent on the table because of our facilities. The issue is, is the return on investment still wasn’t good enough in order to move forward with that or go out, borrow additional funds and just do it everywhere. So we’re working on a different remodel program.

Q: The consumer is changing. How is that impacting Fazoli’s?

A: We’re dabbling in technology. That’s the thing that, if anything, caught me by surprise. Even though I knew where the country was going, I didn’t realize how quickly it was going to happen. And, you know, we’re really in a different economy today. We’re in a stay at home economy, we’re in a bring it to me economy, we’re in an on demand economy. And the consumers just react differently.

Q: What are Fazoli’s biggest successes under your decade of leadership?

Definitely the biggest success story for this brand is us and Panera   being the first brands at our price point to bring food to the table and go to traditional plateware and silverware   versus eating off foam and foil or hand you a little tray with your stuff . When we stopped making the  guest an employee and really let them come in and they just pay and sit down the brand has really taken off.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your connection to the area.

A: I grew up in Kettering and went to the old Fairmont East High School. It’s the last graduating class, go Falcons. And my 16th birthday, my dad woke me up literally at like 9:30 in the morning and threw a tee shirt on me and said ‘I’m taking up the street and you’re getting a job. You’re 16, you need to be working.’ So I went to Bill Knapps kind of where The Greene is today. It was up in that area. And I got a job, and that weekend I was working…

I was pretty good at it. So I just kept grinding away. And I spent one year at Bill Knapps. And I delivered pizzas at Cassano’s Pizza for a while, went to Wright State.

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