When the pizza chain Sbarro filed for bankruptcy in April, analysts speculated on the cause of the restaurant's problems. Industry expert Blair Chancey cited a "perfect storm" of adverse conditions—rising commodity prices, too-rapid growth, increased competition, and a decline in mall traffic. I, however, have a simpler explanation: Nobody likes Sbarro. Devoid of atmosphere, charm, and gustatory relevance, with no signature product to call its own, it's America's least essential restaurant.
That, at least, is my impression—and as one of the least essential people I know, I feel confident broadcasting it. The food there is mediocre and unimaginative—assembly-line Italian festooned with cheese and sugary tomato sauce, a bland version of the homey fare found at postseason soccer banquets or church fundraising suppers. It's expensive, too—a doughy, oleaginous slice of plain pizza costs $3.49 nationwide, and you're certainly not paying extra for ambiance. The prevailing sentiments among online reviewers alternate between disgust ("If you like pizza dough that tastes like clay, then this would be your spot to go") and resignation ("I stopped by the Sbarro at the Philly airport because the line was shorter than the philly cheesesteak line").
Though I patronized Sbarro when I was a kid, considering it the best of a bad lot of food court options at the Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, Ill., I stopped eating there after a friend of a friend reportedly found a Band-Aid in her pizza. But (call me the Seymour Hersh of bad-food journalism) I decided to revisit Sbarro when I heard tell of its bankruptcy. I visited four different locations in three separate states and districts over the course of a month to see what, if anything, there is to like about the chain.
Sbarro's biggest asset is its ubiquity. The store has slightly more than 1,000 worldwide locations, mostly in shopping malls—a footprint that lots of chains would kill for. (In a recent SEC filing, the restaurant called itself "the largest shopping mall-focused restaurant concept in the world.") But malls are in decline. Whereas in my youth the Hawthorn Mall featured the finest in mid-priced chain apparel, its 2011 version is much less vital. On a recent trip there I saw one good-sized store selling peel-and-stick wall decals. Another was offering "Swords up to 70 percent off." It's hard to thrive in a consumer oncology ward, and at noon on a recent Saturday, this Sbarro was far less busy than McDonald's, Taco Bell, or the place selling bourbon chicken.
By contrast, both the Penn Station and the Times Square Sbarros in New York City were packed when I visited them late at night, primarily with tourists, despite the existence of several better—and cheaper—options within a few blocks walk of each. I don't think this bustle was attributable to anyone's real interest in eating at Sbarro. Rather, the patrons were attracted to the fact that Sbarro has a lot of places to sit, and also serves beer. You can go a long way in the restaurant business with nothing more than a good location, a liquor license, a bunch of chairs, and a big illuminated sign.
Beyond pizza, the restaurant also offers a full line of Italian-American steam table delicacies. At the dirty, cavernous Sbarro attached to Penn Station, where I was accosted by a mumbling beggar while waiting to order, I paired the pizza with a plate of baked ziti, which was similarly rank and unappetizing. The ziti had been sitting in the pan for awhile, and all components of the dish had dried out, such that it was brittle where it should have been soft, like some failed avant-garde culinary experiment.
The Times Square Sbarro, which wins points for not being populated with aggressive homeless men, fared better in the food category. Here, the ziti was appropriately textured and the chicken parmigiana was hearty and edible. I finished it all, used the complimentary breadstick to wipe the platter clean, and didn't experience any atypical gastrointestinal trauma on the way home. (While "it didn't make me feel sick" hardly counts as a ringing endorsement, Sbarro needs to take all the praise that it can get right now.)
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.
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?"