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What Sbarro's Woes Say About Where We Get Our Fast Food Now

Posted: February 21, 2014

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The pizza chain is closing 155 stores. Sure, malls have been hit hard, but Sbarro's problems are bigger: These days, diners are more likely to opt for "fast casual" options like Chipotle.

Customers at a Sbarro in Chicago on April 4, 2011, the day that the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Customers at a Sbarro in Chicago on April 4, 2011, the day that the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Scott Olson

In 1985, Joe Sbarro declared that he had high hopes for his cafeteria-style pizza chain, founded in 1956.

"Sbarro's dream is to be another McDonald's," he told Newsday.

On Thursday that dream took a hit: The Italian chain that's become a shopping mall staple shut down 155 stores, or about 16 percent of its U.S. locations. It's one more sign of the difficult journey for some mall restaurants since the recession — particularly food court bastions, like Sbarro, that haven't innovated much since their heyday in the 1980s.

The store closures are hardly the first sentinel of Sbarro's money troubles. When the company filed for bankruptcy nearly three years ago, it blamed, in part, declining foot traffic in malls. Fewer people were shopping or traveling, so Sbarro and restaurants of its type had fewer potential customers.

That problem seems to have persisted. Most of the newly closed locations were also in mall food courts with a declining customer base, Sbarro spokesman Jon Dedmon tells The Salt.

But it's clearly not the case for all mall restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, grew its profits 16 percent in 2013. Restaurant analyst Michael Whiteman says shopping malls have actually been relying on restaurants to fill empty retail space and bring in more customers.

"As e-commerce has drained sales from traditional retail shops, [mall] developers successfully have been using food to provide a humanizing experience that you can't get on your smartphone or desktop," Whiteman says.

Still, the restaurant industry overall has been stagnating since even before the recession, says Harry Balzer of NPD Group. In 2000, the average American ate out 215 times. Last year, that number shrank to 192, according to NPD data.

When people do eat out, they're increasingly gravitating toward newer chains, like Chipotle, Panera and Five Guys. These "fast casual" eateries are a step below a restaurant with full service but a step above, say, Sbarro. This is the kind of chain that's succeeding in the rocky restaurant business today, Balzer says. And Sbarro, which is preheated pizza slices, just isn't cutting it.

"Traditional restaurants are all feeling the brunt of this," he says. "They must all stay contemporary."

To Sbarro's credit, it is trying. It opened a Chipotle-style restaurant called Pizza Cucinova in Ohio late last year, where diners can order customized pies and craft beer. And Sbarro still has 800 traditional locations and several hundred franchises worldwide, suggesting Joe Sbarro's dreams aren't quite dashed yet.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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