Pizza Inn sees its future in its buffet

The struggling chain added more buffet locations last year for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. It also has a new design it hopes will generate more growth.
Pizza Inn buffet
Pizza Inn survived the pandemic by turning to contactless ordering. But it is going big into buffets again./Photo courtesy of Pizza Inn.

Buffets are far from dead. Just ask Pizza Inn.

Last fiscal year, the pizza buffet style restaurant did something it hasn’t done in 24 years: grow its buffet count. Pizza Inn started the 2022 fiscal year with 70 buffet locations and ended it with 72.

And the company is hopeful for more. Pizza Inn plans to debut a new image this fall. Brandon Solano, CEO of parent company Rave Restaurant Group, said the new image has helped generate more interest in opening new buffet restaurants.

“We have the right financial proposition, in the right location with the right franchisees with an amazing new image,” he said.

Franchisees’ improved finances helps, too, Solano said. “First and foremost, our franchisees are making money, if these stores are not making money, then they don’t get opened,” He said, “We are opening with very high volume. The new stores that we’ve opened on average are significantly higher than our existing base of stores.”

But, while the company is increasing its buffet count, its takeout-focused “express” locations continue to shrink. According to data from Pizza Inn’s third-quarter financial results, it ended the 2022 third quarter with 164 total locations which is down from the year prior at 170.

Total system sales at the company declined nearly 10% last year, to $85.9 million, according to Restaurant Business sister company Technomic. By comparison, the Iowa-based pizza buffet chain Pizza Ranch grew by 48% last year. Cici’s, another pizza buffet chain, grew by 14.5%.  

Running a buffet during the pandemic comes with its unique set of challenges, and not everybody was able to meet them. Broad menu buffets like Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet have all gone out of business.

According to Solano, Pizza Inn was forced to adapt to a takeout audience but managed to do so without straying from the central buffet concept.

“We’ve gotten through the pandemic with strong operations, commitment from our franchisees, and some really solid marketing to our consumers,” Solano said.

Solano said Pizza Inn adapted by signing up for third-party delivery services and marketing the “buffet to go” concept. Solano noted that Pizza Inn increased its customer reach by focusing on carry-out and delivery, which in turn strengthened the dine-in customer base.

“During the pandemic we went to carry out and delivery primarily. A lot of people who had come to us for our buffet tried our product. And our product is much improved from a year ago,” he said, “People who tried our product through carry out and delivery, we are now seeing come in and dine in with us.”

Take out and delivery have soared during the pandemic, forcing restaurants like Pizza Inn to adapt to maintain relevancy. According to Technomic, delivery and takeout have grown to account for two thirds of all food service occasions, globally. Dine-in, however decreased from 45% during the pre-pandemic period to a low of 34% in early 2021, with a slight rebound in the second half of the year.

Solano said dine-in prospects for Pizza Inn are looking up.

“The industry says consumers don’t want to dine-in anymore, and we disagree with that. Consumers want a great dine-in experience. It’s not just dining in, they want to be with their families and with their friends and have an amazing experience, if we can deliver that, they want to dine in,” he said.

Solano said that while Pizza Inn’s delivery and take-out capacities have grown, the company is not abandoning the dine-in experience. “We are better at carry out and delivery than we ever used to be but our focus is on making the buffet experience an incredible experience.”

Pizza Inn’s fourth financial quarter ended on June 27, and while the results have not been published yet, Solano said sales were looking up.

“Our sales overall are tremendous; they are very strong. Lots of our restaurants are seeing their sales levels above 2019,” he said, “In terms of the impact on our business, we believe we’re in the post-covid era.”

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