Emerging Concepts | January 2014 | By Judy Kneiszel

Ones to Watch: Piada Italian Street Food

Ohio-based concept brings Italian street food into the fast-casual setting.

Piada serves Italian street food with Chipotle ingredient bar style model.
Piada Italian Street Food
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There are three entrées on the menu at Piada Italian Street Food: pasta bowl, chopped salad, and piada. What customers can create with those three options, though, is practically endless.

The restaurant’s namesake item, the piada, starts with an Italian thin-crust dough made with flour and olive oil. That crust is baked on a stone grill, then filled with ingredients and hand rolled. It’s similar to a wrap or a burrito, but an Italian version. The Piada concept is also similar in service and style to Chipotle, but, again, an Italian version.

Piada founder and CEO Chris Doody makes no secret of his admiration for Chipotle, and as a former cofounder of the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, he has extensive knowledge of Italian cuisine.

“I had experience in full-service Italian dining,” Doody says. “But nobody was doing much in fast casual with Italian, as far as I could see.”

Doody sold his stake in Bravo Brio to investors in 2006. He then did research for four years before opening the first Piada in 2010.

“I built a test kitchen in my office and met with focus groups,” he says.

“By the time that first store opened, I had spent a lot of time perfecting the menu and ingredients and designing the restaurant.”

His research also included traveling to Italy, where he learned what constitutes a piada.

“The piada itself is something you can get from street vendors in Italy,” Doody says. “We called the concept Piada Italian Street Food rather than ‘Italian Grill’ or ‘Kitchen’ because we were trying to differentiate the brand from other concepts that say ‘kitchen’ or ‘grill’ in their names. We also wanted to emphasize the accessibility of our food.”

Piada Italian Street Food

Founder & CEO: Chris Doody

HQ: Columbus, Ohio

Year Started: 2010

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 19

Franchise units: 0

www.mypiada.com

The food preparation style at Piada is similar to that of Chipotle. Customers pick their entrée and their protein, and then go down the line selecting toppings, sauces, and dressings.

“It’s all about customization,” Doody says. “In Italy, it’s about a few fresh ingredients, but Americans do like it their way, so some people pile on a lot of ingredients.”

Prices are based on the protein, or “Grill Item,” each guest selects. No matter if it’s in a pasta bowl, chopped salad, or piada, the price for chicken, Italian sausage, or vegetarian is $6.98; calamari is $7.25; steak is $7.45; and salmon is $8.95. An average check, including a drink, is under $10.

Guests can then choose from three cold sauces and three hot sauces. Cold sauces include two types of pesto, as well as a creamy Parmesan sauce.

The hot sauce choices are Parmesan Alfredo sauce; Pomodoro, made with crushed tomatoes, garlic, and basil; and Diavolo, made with spicy tomatoes, garlic, and chili peppers. Salad dressings are also available.

The topping selections are the final choice the customer makes. Available options include artichokes, Feta cheese, mixed greens, pancetta, sundried tomatoes, white beans, and sweet and spicy peppers. There is no extra charge for any of the ingredients, even though their costs to the restaurant can vary widely from one to another. “We want it to be simple,” Doody says.

For those who want a little help pairing their proteins, sauces, and ingredients, there is a list of Chef Selections.

The Sausage Piada, for example, is made with basil pesto sauce, peppers, onions, fresh Mozzarella, romaine, and bruschetta tomatoes. The Chicken Pasta Bowl features Alfredo sauce with a drizzle of basil pesto sauce, zucchini, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and Parmesan.

There are multiple side options available at Piada, including Piada Sticks, which are made with piada dough wrapped around pepperoni, Parmigiano Reggiano, or artichokes. They are served with Parmesan dipping sauce. The brand’s signature tomato basil and lobster bisque soups are available every day.

Piada also has a dessert offering that presents an innovative spin on a traditional Italian dish. Cannoli Chips are pieces of broken cannoli shells that are served with a side of chocolate chip cream and are sold for $2.95.

“Everything is made in house,” Doody says. “We make all of our sauces from scratch, and our restaurants are run by chefs in chef coats. We’re all about showcasing the food and the value. Our restaurants are very comfortable, and we place a lot of emphasis on design. Typical décor features white marble, white oak tables, LED lighting. It’s a very clean design.”

Doody says Piada emphasizes high-quality ingredients throughout its system, but he says he’s careful not to overuse the words locally sourced.

“It’s very difficult to source fresh local Ohio tomatoes in winter,” he says. “People overuse the term locally sourced. We’re very careful not to say things that aren’t true, but we do source high-quality products.”

Based in Columbus, Piada has expanded throughout Ohio and into Indiana and Michigan.

“We’re currently a Midwestern company,” Doody says. “But we’re in the process of expanding nationally. We are primarily located in high-density suburban locations at this point, but we think Piada will be very successful in urban settings, as well.”

In September 2013, Piada partnered with private equity firm Catterton Partners.

“Catterton’s investment will be used to continue growing the Piada concept across the country,” Doody says. “Piada was designed to be a national brand. In the next two years we hope to expand both in the Midwest and beyond the Midwest. We are penetrating markets strategically, but five years from now Piada could be a national brand with more than 100 locations.”

Doody says all Piada stores are corporate owned, and he does not have any plans to franchise the concept.

“Corporate-owned is our strategy at this point,” he says. “But Piada is a concept that could successfully be joint ventured or franchised.”