The state of Sbarro: America's least essential restaurant.

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 4 2011 4:09 AM

Sborring

The state of Sbarro: America's least essential restaurant.

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For the most part, though, appealing to the sort of person who actually likes food has never been Sbarro's strong point. Blair Chancey, editor of fast-food trade journal QSRmagazine, told me that Sbarro's target demographic is "young, hungry males," and this might be so. But it also seems as though Sbarro courts the indifferent eater—tourists, children, people who just want a slice and a place to sit while they talk about the amazing pants they saw on sale at The Limited. As far as I could tell, I was the only employed New Yorker dining at the two Manhattan venues I tried. The Sbarro I visited at the Hawthorn Mall food court was crowded with teenagers lured by the promise of free breadstick samples. And the Sbarro in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station (where my slice tasted no better or worse than expected) was busy with commuters, tourists, and children wearing T-shirts advertising the fact that they were on a field trip.

Sbarro's social media presence, which might roughly indicate the public's interest in the chain, does little to dispel the impression that few people actively like it. Sbarro has two separate major Facebook groups that I could find, with, as of May 3, a combined 136,761 fans—far fewer than Domino's (2,605,176 fans), Pizza Hut (3,351,941 fans), and even other mall-centric restaurants like Panda Express (1,227,292 fans) and Auntie Anne's (261,791 fans). Most of Sbarro's fans seem to come from places like Turkey and the Philippines—honorable countries with little experience in the American pizza tradition. (A typical post: "Merhaba hosgeldiniz sbarroya. Helloo welcome to sbarro. Afyon afium sbarro.")

For a long time, you could make a lot of money selling terrible pizza. For most people, a bad slice of pizza is better than no pizza at all, and Sbarro has banked on this for decades. But commodity prices have risen dramatically during the last few years, and profits have similarly declined. In order to survive in this tough climate, pizza joints are being forced to innovate—something they're not used to doing. Pizza Hut is emphasizing its "WingStreet" brand and stuffing cheese into crusts with reckless abandon; Domino's is flogging its chicken, too, while doubling down on ingredient quality.

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Sbarro's marketing tactics tell you all you need to know about its failure to match its quick-service competitors. The chain was actually founded by Italian immigrants, and was family-owned until recently—a heartwarming tale, but one that Sbarro seems determined to keep to itself. The restaurant has no popular avatar that diners can associate with its product. Burger King has its leering, sinister royal mascot. Little Caesar's has the "Pizza! Pizza!" guy. Subway has Formerly Obese Jared. Sbarro has … Michael Scott, an asinine fictional office worker who mistakes its flaccid offering for "a real New York slice." Even its logo—the red, white, and green of the Italian flag, with Sbarro printed in the white part—is banal and overly literal. "Sbarro: We serve Italian food, of a sort." Or: "We're here, and we've got pizza." That's not much of a motto if you're trying to rebuild a failing business, especially if the pizza you've got tastes terrible. The new Sbarro needs to give consumers an actual reason to come to its restaurants; it needs to come up with an answer to the question that people inevitably asked me when, in the course of working on this article, I told them where I was planning to eat. "You're going to Sbarro?" they asked, puzzled. "Why?"

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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