Cicis Pizza President and COO Jeff Hetsel, who has been with the buffet chain for 29 years, knows well the importance of quality, service and cleanliness in the restaurant business.
The ranked order of those big three criteria, though, have shifted amid the pandemic, Hetsel said.
“The “C” is going to be first for a very long time,” he said. “It’s going to be cleanliness as the primary. In the buffet business, the guest eats with their eyes. They’re also evaluating you very closely with their eyes.”
Cicis, which emerged from bankruptcy protection earlier this month, is re-imagining the future of pizza buffets for a post-pandemic world.
The chain recently brought all of its district managers to Dallas and will be conducting restaurant inspections over the next 60 days to ensure it is upholding those cleanliness standards, Hetsel said.
No longer can the pizza buffet be solely focused on the on-premise experience, though. With the pandemic, Cicis made a number of shifts, including moving to takeout and delivery, while doing away with the self-serve buffet.
Now, two Cicis employees staff the buffet line, one to serve up soups, salads and pasta, the other focused on pizza.
But the biggest change has been the pizzas that go out of Cicis doors, Hetsel said. Pre-pandemic, takeout made up just 10% of sales. Now, it’s more like 30% to 40%, he said.
“We’re doubling down on the off-premise thing,” he said. “Being a buffet-focused business and being a takeout-focused business are two different animals.”
There are advantages to off-premise sales, though.
“When you’re making custom pizzas for the guest and you’re giving them what they want, the waste is nominal,” Hetsel said. “Our waste as gone down dramatically. Our food costs have gone down.”
Cicis has also added third-party delivery, as well as curbside pickup.
After the bankruptcy proceedings and new ownership under D&G Investors, a group made up of Applebee’s franchisee SSCP Management and Mooyah Burgers owner Gala Capital Partners, the major issue remaining is reopening shuttered Cicis units, he said. The chain has 300 open units, with 100 locations that have not reopened since the pandemic began.
“We’re trying to reopen the 100 stores we lost during the pandemic,” Hetsel said. “That’s a priority.”
It’s unclear whether any of those locations will be permanently shuttered, but he said it’s likely there are “some stores” that probably won’t reopen.
Cicis is eyeing new prototypes, one with a game room and another centered on a drive-thru, takeout model as it looks to grow and emerge from this crisis.
Last week was the chain’s best sales period since the pandemic began, Hetsel, a franchisee who owns two locations, said.
The brand’s new owners will help the company modernize.
“They bring a wide variety of expertise in off-premsie,” he said. “We’re doubling down on technolology to keep driving these off-premise sales. We’ve always had a big opportunity with technology.”