Il Pizzaiolo: Paesanos, Sacramento, CA

Paesano's SacramentoThere is an ever-present theme that weaves its way through Sacramento, California-based Paesanos’ 16-year-old operation: evolution, revolution even. Co-owner Mark Scribner and Director of Operations Dana Scarpulla showcased its original Midtown location during a recent Pizza Today visit to talk about Paesanos’ concept and its growth. When the first Paesanos opened in the trendy Midtown area, Scribner says: “We wanted it to be affordable. We also wanted it to be a dining experience at the same time.” It surrounds creative pizzas and pastas and an urban theme with an open kitchen, dining area and bar, brick walls with mirrors and funky art, high ceilings with large, dark wood beams and fun, eclectic music.

The Midtown store set a benchmark for the following years of success. Last year, the single Midtown store pulled in more than $2.8 million in sales. But its volume is merely the beginning of Paesanos prosperity. In 2005, Paesanos opened a location in Elk Grove, a bedroom community of Sacramento and in September 2011, the company took its concept to the college town of Davis, California. Each new location has added another $2 million to $2.8 million in annual sales. At Midtown, Paesanos initially generated about half of the volume it does today.

“We’ve had to retrofit it as we’ve gone because of the volume,” Scribner says. “Every year we’ve added something to it.” The restaurant has optimized all of its available square footage, even leasing office space from a neighboring business. While the Midtown store exudes a natural, old building characteristic, Scribner says they’ve tried to emulate that in the Elk Grove Paesanos that was built out from scratch. “We tried to recreate that in a strip center by bringing in faux finishes and doing murals on the walls,” he says. Elk Grove also attracted a different crowd than the Midtown’s young urbanites. Scribner says that subtle changes, like a more family-friendly playlist of music, helped win over suburban families. Scribner was somewhat surprised by the patronage of the newly opened Davis Paesanos.

Retirees have added to the mix of families and the college community prompting them to think beyond the university, Scarpulla says. “You have to get past the seasonality because summer and winter breaks 25,000 people leave the local area,” she says, “so you really do have to build that local clientele.” The strategy was even more vital with a fast-casual concept that Paesanos introduced to Davis in 2008. Paesanos’ by-the-slice pizzeria and bar, Uncle Vito’s, backs up to its pasta restaurant, Pronto. Combined, Uncle Vito’s and Pronto generate another $2 million in annual sales. But when the lulls comes, Scarpulla says, “it’s a matter of being smart about it and adjusting your staffing levels in anticipation of that.” After three years, Scribner adds: “We really can see the ebbs and flows.”

Though the concepts’ finances are controlled separately, Paesanos, Uncle Vito’s and Pronto are operated together. Owners Scribner and David Virga have a corporate management team consisting of a director of operations, executive chef and dining room manager with a management team at each store reporting to them. A key to Paesanos’ quality control is Executive Chef Jason Sondgroth. “All of our recipes he has either adopted or he’s created on his own,” Scribner says. Sondgroth has created a master book with standardized recipes and prep procedures, freeing him from being tied to a single kitchen. “Being able to have an executive chef in the position to float around from store to store and oversee kitchen operations has really helped us maintain consistency,” Scribner says. Sondgroth’s flexibility, training practices and reference guides also have helped Paesanos keep a handle on its food costs. Scribner says there is one other factor that has really driven food costs down. “We linked together with a group of people a few years back for buying power,” he says of the Leverage Buying Group.

“We’ve gone out and put to bid our broad line vendors and produce companies, credit card processing, anything that costs us money.” With 60 restaurants in the group, Scribner says it’s been a great tool for the business to control costs. After joining the affiliation three years ago, Paesanos’ food cost dropped below 20 percent.

Scribner says he believes in creating strong partnerships. Paesanos helped initiate the creation of the Handle District in its neighborhood last year. Still in its infancy, he says the district will provide many benefits to area businesses. “It is a small tax that goes on the bill for every business owner in the district and that money goes towards graffiti abatement, security, marketing, and special events,” he says, adding that once the district is in full swing the revenue potential will be substantial. The Handle District joins area businesses together as a joint marketing vehicle. Scribner says money has started to filter into the district. “It is going to start blooming soon,” he says. Paesanos rarely invests in traditional advertising.

Instead, the pizzeria focuses its efforts on in-store marketing and social media. Brightly colored boards are placed strategically throughout the restaurant, highlighting anything from its $4 Happy Hour appetizers and house made sangria to its specials menu. Scarpulla, who handles the marketing, says the signs are subtle but effective. “It’s something as simple as putting this brightly colored sign up,” she says. “It’s a focal point.”

Paesanos is known for its Sangria, which accounts for sales comparable to its liquor sales. All three Paesanos do about 25 percent in bar sales, while its Uncle Vito’s concept generates nearly 40 percent bar sales. Scarpulla says the suggestion of sangria really gets patrons to take advantage of it. “The specials board — we change these up about four to five times a year,” Scarpulla says. “We focus on seasonality in our specials.” During the Pizza Today visit Paesanos’ specials board featured a Little Italy Burger at $9.95, Sage-Butternut Pizza at $10.95, Four-cheese Lasagna at $10.95 and Braised Beef Short Ribs at $12.95. Offerings change seasonally and sometimes make their way onto Paesanos’ printed menu like the Gorgonzola & Fuji Apple Pizza with olive oil, sautéed apples, caramelized onions, spinach, gorgonzola and mozzarella. Sondgoth has brought a bounty of flavors to Paesanos like the Watermelon Prosciutto Pizza with caramelized onions and a balsamic vinegar reduction. His newer creations join menu favorites like the Sicilian with a spicy red sauce, Italian sausage, prosciutto, salami and mozzarella topped with basil, oregano and Parmesan cheese and the Greek with artichokes, garlic, roasted peppers, spinach, red onions, black olives, feta, mozzarella and fresh lemon. Veggies also take center stage on Paesanos pizzas with the Mushroom Formaggio with portobello and crimini mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, Parmesan and rosemary and the Patata y Pollo with red potatoes, roasted chicken, lemon-white wine sauce, mozzarella, goat cheese and rosemary. Pricing is broken down into Mezzo (six slices) at $10.95 and Grande (12 slices) at $18.95. Any pie can also be turned into a calzone at $12.95.

With a full menu, Scribner says, pizza and pasta equally comprise sales. “We are as much a ‘pasteria’ as we are a pizzeria,” he says. Its most popular pasta is the Carbonara, spaghetti with smoked bacon, cracked black pepper, garlic, cream and Parmesan at $8.95. Scribner says there is a great profit margin with its popular starters like its Bruschetta at $6.95 and Polenta Fries that are served with balsamic ketchup and gorgonzola sauce at $6.95.

Besides its specials and regular menu, there are 10 to 12 items that regulars know about and can order. “We actually have in our POS system a special screen that is for the secret menu that has all of those items in it,” Scarpulla says. “We’ve been around for so long and our menu had evolved and changed. But many of the things that we’ve done in the past we can still make. They are just not listed on the menu.” Paesanos’ has garnered its share of fans and thrives off of its regulars. Scribner credits its staff, some of which have been with Paesanos from its beginning. “Everyone is family,” he says.

Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.

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