retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

About a month ago, we reported that Sbarro had filed for bankruptcy protection, and we generated a little bit of discussion by suggesting that it was probably because it is “a greasy example of overpriced, lowest common denominator pizza. In other words, perfect for malls and airports.”

(I got a little grief from some airport foodservice folks who thought I was unfairly painting with a broad brush.)

But Slate.com had a piece the other day in which it called Sbarro “America’s least essential restaurant,” and said why. The explanation, I think, is Eye-Opening, because it defines in many ways the difference between success and irrelevance.

Some excerpts:

• “The food there is mediocre and unimaginative - assembly-line Italian festooned with cheese and sugary tomato sauce, a bland version of the homey fare found at postseason soccer banquets or church fundraising suppers. It's expensive, too - a doughy, oleaginous slice of plain pizza costs $3.49 nationwide, and you're certainly not paying extra for ambiance.”

• “Sbarro's biggest asset is its ubiquity. The store has slightly more than 1,000 worldwide locations, mostly in shopping malls - a footprint that lots of chains would kill for ... But malls are in decline.”

• “Sbarro courts the indifferent eater - tourists, children, people who just want a slice and a place to sit while they talk about the amazing pants they saw on sale at The Limited.”

• “Sbarro's marketing tactics tell you all you need to know about its failure to match its quick-service competitors. The chain was actually founded by Italian immigrants, and was family-owned until recently - a heartwarming tale, but one that Sbarro seems determined to keep to itself ... Even its logo - the red, white, and green of the Italian flag, with Sbarro printed in the white part - is banal and overly literal. "Sbarro: We serve Italian food, of a sort." Or: "We're here, and we've got pizza." That's not much of a motto if you're trying to rebuild a failing business, especially if the pizza you've got tastes terrible.”

To be fair, the author does say some of the food at Sbarro isn’t horrible. Finishing one meal, he writes, “I finished it all, used the complimentary breadstick to wipe the platter clean, and didn't experience any atypical gastrointestinal trauma on the way home. (While ‘it didn't make me feel sick’ hardly counts as a ringing endorsement, Sbarro needs to take all the praise that it can get right now.)”

The point here is not to dump all over Sbarro.

Rather, it is to point out that while some might assume that the rocky economy and declining mall traffic might be the chief reasons for Sbarro’s troubles, it isn’t hard to imagine that maybe - just maybe - the real problem is that it was a food company that didn’t focus on the food ... a characteristic shared by more than a few food companies that have priorities other than taste and aroma and eye-appeal.

While not all these companies might qualify for the description “least essential,” Sbarro’s travails should at least serve as a eye-opening warning - that misplaced priorities and inattention to details and core values can be a dangerous combination.
KC's View: