Modern Italian cuisine is the next big thing in fast casual. Or at least, that’s what some major quick-service operators are banking on.

Fazoli’s and Sbarro each plan to debut a fast-casual Italian concept in the near future, following in the footsteps of successful regional brands fusing popular Italian dishes like pasta and pizza with the growing trend toward premium ingredients and customization.

Fazoli’s plans to open two fast-casual Italian eateries by the end of this year. The yet-to-be-named concept will operate as a separate brand under Fazoli’s and will not feature any similarities to its parent company, CEO Carl Howard says.

“We think modern Italian is a growing segment, and we are looking to open in major markets,” Howard says. In addition to Dallas and Denver, Fazoli’s is looking at “like-size DMAs on the East Coast that are large enough to support multiple units,” he says. “We are looking at multi-use facilities with high retail traffic areas and a high daytime white collar population.”

Sbarro is launching fast-casual brand Pizza Cucinova in Columbus, Ohio, this fall. The brand will focus on pizzas and salads.

While several other brands are quickly filling up the fast-casual pizza category—including Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza, Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, and Pie Five—the fast-casual Italian segment is offering a modern spin on other classic Italian dishes. Piada, also based in Columbus, is serving up Italian street food at 10 locations. At Piada, guests can customize their piadas (Italian flatbreads), pasta bowls, or salad bowls. Boca Raton, Florida–based Italio, with similar offerings to Piada, has three restaurants in Florida and another three slated to open in the state in the near future.

“In the past year, customization has become even more important. People like that they can customize and create their own experience.”

These modern Italian concepts are expanding as consumers seek out healthy foods in a quick environment at a lower price point than casual dining, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of foodservice consulting firm Technomic Inc.

“Fast casual has had double digit growth in the past year and is offering better quality at a lower price. When you go beyond that, the experience is very contemporary,” Tristano says. The entire fast-casual category grew to $31 billion in 2012, according to Technomic.

The fast-casual Italian brands are also performing well because their offerings are customizable and the guest experience is interactive, Tristano says. Piada, Italio, and the upcoming concept from Fazoli’s all allow guests to choose the ingredients they want in their wraps, pastas, or salads, similar to Chipotle’s serving style.

“In the past year, customization has become even more important. People like that they can customize and create their own experience,” Howard says.

Fazoli’s is differentiating its new offering from other modern Italian concepts; the new fast casual will always offer 23 fresh ingredients that consumers can choose from. “Anybody can have a salad or a flatbread: it’s what you do from there,” Howard says. “We have unique toppings and will add a couple of things at the end of your experience that we are not ready to disclose. We believe we have differentiated our concept from others.”

Despite the push toward modern Italian as a competitive category, the new concepts from major quick-service players may not go over well with guests, Tristano says. “It is going to be hard for these brands to get people to go beyond what they think of them,” he says. “They are going from a lower price point and a concept that people have known for years [to a higher price point].”

Fazoli’s is viewed more as a quick-service operator with drive-thru restaurants, Tristano says, while Sbarro is viewed as a food-court operator.

But Howard believes Fazoli’s leans more toward the fast-casual style (“You order your food and we deliver it to you,” Howard says) and the company plans to operate Fazoli’s and the new brand as two separate entities. “Fazoli’s has one look, feel, and design, and this is completely different,” Howard says. “[Consumers] will never know. It is a separate corporation and entity, operated under Fazoli’s personnel.”

Howard is more concerned about finding real estate for Fazoli’s fast-casual eateries.

“There are 15–30 fast-casual brands wanting to grow, and we are all fighting for the same space. There are no great end caps open,” Howard says.

Once real estate and a name trademark are secured, he says, Fazoli’s has the artwork, uniforms, and menu in place to open. Along with the two units to open this year, Fazoli’s plans to open five fast-casual stores and begin franchising the concept next year.

“We are going to selectively franchise,” Howard says. “We are looking for only proven restaurant operators, people that are already operating brands and operating multiple units.”

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