Ensuring that quality-first DNA is an exercise in operations, and one Russo needs to oversee at all times. Before opening, every new store takes three to four employees and trains 6–8 weeks in a live kitchen at one of Russo’s company stores. There’s an additional 2–3 weeks, sometimes four, of training at the new restaurant.
“We’re not the kind of business where you’re passive, hire a GM and let them run your store,” Russo says. “We don’t have franchisees like that. They’re hands on, involved in the day-to-day operations. They’re as passionate about this as I am.”
Beside the quality, there is another unique trait fueling Russo’s boom in the $45 billion pizza arena. Russo says he envisioned a diverse company when he started franchising in 1996. He felt it would offer options to perspective operators and open the map to scale the concept around the world.
There are 48 total stores currently. Seven are Coal-Fired units. The quick-service unit is pushing $1.1 million in average-unit volumes while the full-service store is $1.2 million. The brand is headquartered in Houston with a heavy Southern geographic focus. In mid-July, Russo’s inked a deal with franchising magnate Jeff Moosa, who has more than three decades of franchising experience with brands like Taco Bell, Captain D’s, and Golden Chick. He’s also a former franchisee of Jack in the Box and Church’s Chicken. Moosa plans to grow the brand across Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio to the tune 15–20 locations in the next 5–6 years. A store opened in Tampa, Florida, this past year. One a year ago in Clearwater. Two more are in the works for the Sunshine State and Oklahoma is growing as well.
And all of this is being built to fit each market and location, not the reverse course, which is why the openings are so successful, Russo says. For example, a nice lifestyle center, where it costs $40–$50 per square foot, makes sense for a Coal-Fired restaurant. There a full bar, wine, brick oven, and other premium touches that can complete the “wow factor” a higher-end development demands. Also, gourmet items, like Salmon Piccata and higher-end pizzas fit the price point.