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Pizza Inn learns to love its buffet

The chain expanded its all-you-can-eat hours, and sales have grown ever since.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Pizza Inn has always seemed to have an uncertain relationship with the buffet that made it popular in the small Southern towns the chain has long called home.

Its buffet hours were limited, which seems to make sense given the model’s costs and the shift of consumers toward more takeout.

And yet, that’s what the chain was to many of its customers.

So, Pizza Inn two years ago decided to embrace its buffet, making it available all the time. The chain’s same-store sales have grown ever since.

“You prefer not to be in the buffet business,” Bob Bafundo, president of Pizza Inn parent company Rave Restaurant Group, said in an interview with Restaurant Business. “As I told our franchisees, I’d love to be selling pharmaceuticals but I don’t. I sell a pizza buffet. So let’s love it, and get after it.”

The results speak for themselves. Same-store sales at the chain’s 155 U.S. locations have increased in each of the past eight quarters, including 2.7% in the period ended Dec. 23.

The sales growth is coming during times of the day when the chain had the buffet closed. The buffet was open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and again from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The chain is getting sales growth in the mid-afternoon hours and after 8 p.m.

“That’s been a real strong part of our sales growth over the last two years,” Bafundo said. “We had some great consumer feedback. They said that, ‘My life’s too hectic. I’m not checking my wristwatch to see if the buffet is open before I cross town.’”

Pizza Inn’s reluctance to embrace its buffet is certainly understandable. Many buffet chains have struggled and have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, including the parent companies of Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, as well as Old Country Buffet and Ryan’s. Others have simply seen sales challenges, such as the pizza buffet concept Cici’s.

But other buffet concepts have bucked this trend to generate sales growth in recent years—in part by remodeling restaurants and embracing the ease of buffet ordering, where consumers can control their experience.

Bafundo said the buffet provides its customers with a lot of food at a low price. “It’s still an incredible value,” he said. “Typically, our average restaurant has an all-you-can-eat lunch at $7.99. It’s hard to go through a QSR drive-thru and pay less than that for a combo.”

And the all-day buffet was pioneered by some of its operators who had gone that route in the years before the change was made systemwide. “We had many franchisees who made that move on their own in the two to three years previously,” Bafundo said. “That helped us sell that to the rest of the franchise community.”

Pizza Inn is not ignoring current industry trends, such as online ordering and more technology. Many of its customers come in for takeout pizza, after all.

The company is adding a new point-of-sale system and it has online ordering for those takeout customers.

That gives Pizza Inn more balance between the dine-in buffet customers and those who still want to take a pie home with them.

“It’s not as if we’re not paying attention to the changing consumer needs with online and convenience and those things,” Bafundo said. “We’ve gone into it with a real balance. The buffet is who we are. But we’ve got to adapt to the changing needs of the consumer. That part is growing rapidly as well.”

And now, the chain’s sales growth the past two years is starting to inspire Pizza Inn’s franchisees to do something they hadn’t done for a while: grow.

“We’re starting to see a lot of legacy franchise owners stepping up and build new stores,” Bafundo said. “And we’ve got a lot of those operators stepping up to remodel those restaurants.”

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