As fast-casual pizza concepts make their mark across America, one of the nation’s top 10 pizza chains is joining the growing movement.

Sbarro will open its first Pizza Cucinova restaurant next week in a strip at Columbus, Ohio’s popular shopping center, Easton. The concept’s second and third units will open in early 2014 near downtown Columbus and in Cincinnati, respectively.

“This is a completely separate concept, designed to be developed primarily in strip centers,” says J. David Karam, chief executive of Sbarro, which has more than 1,000 units in some 40 countries. “It’s part of a fast-emerging category.”

Pizza Cucinova has been a key initiative for Karam since he joined Sbarro in early 2012 as chairman after serving as Wendy’s president from 2008 to 2011. The first stores are prototypes, not test units, he says.

“I thought it was important to develop or acquire an artisan pizza business,” says Karam, who took on the title of CEO in March.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the Sbarro pies, he adds, which feature fresh dough and whole-milk Mozzarella shredded in the stores.

“Sbarro is the premium-quality [quick-service pizza] chain,” he says, and Pizza Cucinova embraces the “stratification of the market.”

Columbus was chosen for the initial store because it is one of the nation’s top test markets, and so Karam can keep an eye on it. He splits time between Columbus—home to his family’s large Wendy’s franchise, Cedar Enterprises—and Sbarro’s offices in Melville, New York.

“We certainly believe in the underlying trend that is causing customers to look for higher-quality food, but they still want convenience.”

Much of the work to create Pizza Cucinova was led by Anthony Missano, president of business development.

“We’re very confident in this category,” says the 35-year Sbarro veteran. “It’s artisan, Neapolitan-style pizza, with very, very fine dough that requires special handling. We will be featuring top ingredients and will locally source many of them.”

Using dough made with double-zero flour from Italy, the thin-crust pies are baked quickly in a very hot, wood-smoked oven and topped with upscale ingredients such as arugula and prosciutto.

“We certainly believe in the underlying trend that is causing customers to look for higher-quality food, but they still want convenience,” Karam says.

The menu features nine specialty pies, five pizzas dubbed “Classics,” and a build-your-own option, all of which come in one 12-inch size. Specialty pizzas include the Steak and Gorgonzola pie, made with roast top sirloin, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, Gorgonzola, and chopped parsley; and the Caponata Vegetariana, made with grilled eggplant, garlic, goat cheese, and capers. Among the ingredients in the remaining specialty pizzas are roasted Portobello, truffled Asiago cheese, truffle oil, imported Bufala Mozzarella and Burrata, anchovies, clams, shrimp, sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, soppressata, arugula, fennel, broccolini, and peppadews.

Pizza Cucinova’s Classic pies are all made with extra virgin olive oil and Pecorino Romano. Four different variations, the White, Red, Green, and Margherita, allow customers to choose from sauces such as marinara and basil pesto, as well as different cheeses. Customers can add extra ingredients for $1–$4 each.

The fast-casual concept will also serve upscale salads like Roasted Red and Yellow Beets, with house greens, Feta, roasted walnuts, fresh basil, and lemon vinaigrette; and the Mediterranean, with a mix of greens, olives, Feta, pepperoncini, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and red wine vinaigrette.

A unique salumeria-style menu item includes sliced prosciutto and crusty bread, soppressata, salami, olives, and pepperoncini. Pizza Cucinova will serve eight beers on tap, wine by the glass, soft drinks, and cheesecakes baked daily.

The new concept’s layout follows in the open, airy fast-casual tradition. Diners enter the restaurant and go down the ordering line, where the restaurant’s staff builds the pies on pizza peels. There’s a big menuboard behind the workers, and customers pay at the end. Reclaimed wood is used throughout the restaurant, including in the tables.

Sbarro, which operates primarily quick-service pizza restaurants in shopping malls, universities, airports, and other nontraditional locations, is the latest on a growing list of operators and restaurant veterans to launch fast-casual pizza operations. Texas-based chain Pizza Inn created Pie Five, while Atlanta-headquartered Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint was developed by Moe’s Southwest Grill cofounder Matt Andrew. Los Angeles brand PizzaRev has financial backing from Buffalo Wild Wings, and Pasadena, California–based Blaze Pizza is operated by the founders of Wetzel’s Pretzels.

The new pizza movement is part of a bigger trend in which restaurant companies, from quick-service veteran White Castle to casual player Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, test and roll out fast-casual concepts to capitalize on the only restaurant segment showing solid growth.

Recent research from restaurant market research firm Technomic Inc. determined the made-to-order pizza category could be the next hot niche concept.

“There are several players in the U.S. looking to grow by focusing on a customization process that uses different sauces, cheeses, and flour types, just like Subway or Chipotle do,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.

The artisan pies “are in that sweet spot of $5–$7 and can be quickly turned out in a very fresh manner,” he adds.

In a very competitive market, where big chains sell larger traditional pizzas for less than $6 each, the profit margin for fast-casual pizza is also attractive, he says.

Although Domino’s Pizza has experimented with stores that focus increasingly on lunch—a hallmark of fast casual—and has moved kitchens to the front of the store, Sbarro is the largest pizza chain to incorporate a customizeable and quickly served artisan menu.

Consumer Trends, Fast Casual, Growth, Menu Innovations, Pizza, Restaurant Operations, Web Exclusives, Sbarro