Sbarro's new pizza recipe: Can the struggling chain make a comeback?

The rather low-rent restaurant synonymous with food courts and airports wants to become the next Panera

Sbarro pizza at the Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C.: The fast food chain is trying to refine its rather pedestrian food court fare.
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The story: Sbarro, the ubiquitous food chain found in shopping malls across America, is trying to reinvent itself with a new (and supposedly improved) pizza recipe. The company will begin using freshly made tomato sauce and grated cheese for its pies, which will be cooked over open-flame ovens to increase the "theater" of the Sbarro's experience. The initiative, led by new chief executive James J. Greco, is part of a strategy to reinvent Sbarro as a "fast casual" restaurant — think Panera Bread or Qdoba — that offers high-quality meals at fast-food speeds. Sbarro recently clawed its way out of bankruptcy — the company, $400 million in debt, filed for bankruptcy in April 2011 — and was only able to exit after closing 28 stores and securing a $35 million line of the credit. "We have to change people's perception of us," Greco, a food industry veteran who has turned around ailing franchises before, tells The New York Times. After 56 years in the pizza business, can the struggling franchise reinvent itself?

The analysis: Sbarro isn't alone in trying to go upmarket "as consumer tastes grow more refined," says Tom Gara at The Wall Street Journal. "Healthy eating," or at least the "illusion of it," is an obvious trend — McDonald's, for example, has pushed new healthier menu options with some success. And Sbarro is smartly putting some marketing muscle behind its latest push, says Kelly Dobkin at Zagat. Sbarro has already begun testing its new fast casual set-up at 10 locations this summer, and is enlisting vintage food trucks in Los Angeles and New York to drive across the country while simultaneously "doling out free slices." Expect classy things from the "troubled pie-slinger."

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