The company subscribes to strong traditions, to be sure, but within the past couple of years, the chain has made “substantial changes,” according to Jonathan Fornaci, president of Straw Hat Pizza. Those changes encompass a broader market reach, an in-store redesign and a menu overhaul.
Although founded in 1959, Straw Hat just recently ventured outside of its California comfort zone. Straw Hat now includes about 90 locations throughout Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Texas, where the company opened its first unit in December.
The Texas opening in Flower Mound unveiled Straw Hat’s new look, with two colorful wall murals, as well as a sit-down bar area, a private 40-person party room, game room and six high-definition TVs.
“We are expanding rapidly and I believe that expansion and design go hand in hand. You want a fresh look and feel to the brand if you’re adding to it,” Fornaci said. “The old design featured a lot of blues, which was wonderful but we didn’t feel it was sophisticated.”
The company has switched over to earthy tones, which presents a comfortable aesthetic. Additionally, leather booths boast individual televisions for a personalized experience, and every store has wireless Internet availability.
Wall murals line the walls, depicting the brand’s history and California heritage, with iconic images of beaches, surfing, Hollywood-esque motifs, and depictions of fresh, local produce used by the chain.
Additionally, the game room is now enclosed, so noise from an event or birthday party won’t trickle into the main dining area. New games have been installed – both redemption and video – with prizes available. And, to further appeal to a family demographic, each booth features its own television set up for camcorder and camera SD memory cards.
“We want the entire little league team and their parents to come out after a game and to have everyone be comfortable. We have not only great quality food, but also a large sense of entertainment. The kids love it because of the game room, and the parents love it because there is also a separate sports bar area,” Fornaci said. “Or, if it’s just a family dining out, the parents can put on Nickelodeon for their kids, while mom and dad can have an actual conversation. If you go to another casual dining restaurant, it’s just not that conducive for these types of opportunities.”
Additionally, Straw Hat restaurants now all feature digital menu boards using Four Winds software. All of the Straw Hat units are being updated, including legacy stores, within the next two years.
Also experiencing a makeover is Straw Hat’s menu. About six months ago, the chain offered pizza, pasta, its signature Hot Hats (calzones), salads and appetizers. Everything was cooked in the pizza oven. Those offerings, however, have since expanded significantly thanks in large part to a new piece of equipment.
“We added a grill top, which was huge. Now we can fancy up our pasta dishes a bit and offer much more. Before we had a basic sandwich, but now we have a chipotle chicken sandwich. We have meatballs, a full line of burgers, pulled pork, chicken quesadillas, green bean crispy crispers and specials every single day,” Fornaci said. “It’s really amazing how much of a difference this one component makes to our company. It’s very exciting.”
More variety doesn’t mean Straw Hat has shifted the spotlight away from its staples. Straw Hat will still be anchored by its pizza options – from lemon pepper chicken to Greek master to Pizza Mexicali – and its high-selling hot chicken wings, which now come with a choice of 10 sauces.
“We are sticking to our standards; keeping our traditional recipes. All we’ve done is taken the core values and food and expanded it. Not everyone wants pasta or pizza everyday, so this is a way for us to appeal to more people more often,” Fornaci said.
Also in keeping with tradition, ingredients remain local, including the sauce made with Central California Valley tomatoes. Straw Hat takes three days out of the year to pick and sort its tomatoes and make its sauce from scratch. The process has been in place since the company’s inception and entails a big risk.
“We get one shot a year. If the batch quantity is miscounted for the year, then we’re in trouble. Needless to say we always overshoot the amount,” Fornaci said. “This is a way to get that quality component that makes a difference in our product and that we simply won’t compromise. We control our entire supply chain and were using local sources before it was cool.”
The company’s wheat supply comes from dedicated fields in Idaho, for example, and is grown in volcanic soil. Its policy is to use ingredients within a 150-mile radius. Admittedly, that yields a slightly higher price point, but Fornaci insists the quality is well worth it.
“The price is still reasonable, and you get the variety, too. A family of four can order a salad and a pizza for $25. Having that enhanced menu allows us to appeal to families that have different tastes or cravings on any given night,” Fornaci said.
With momentum from these fundamental changes, the company plans to reach 150 total locations within the next two years and 250 locations within five years.
In reaching this goal, the 100-percent franchised Straw Hat is offering plenty of ownership incentives. Dubbed the Straw Hat Cooperative Corporation, franchise owners are all shareholders in the cooperation. Members pay royalties -- estimated to be one-third less than a typical franchise -- to the cooperative and, in return, receive marketing materials, deals with suppliers, and ingredients and packaging manufactured by the cooperative.
Each owner also has a vote on company matters, including the selection of board members, a practice that earned Straw Hat Pizza the seal of Fair Franchising by the American Association Franchisees and Dealers.
“We pride ourselves on a full turnkey support system for our franchisees. We send teams into new units for weeks for support and training, and we hold open field support sessions after that. We give them freedom to spend their allotted marketing money how they want, so if they think print is better than TV, that’s their choice. They know their local market better than anyone else,” Fornaci said. “The trust we have in our franchisees is going to be a big factor in our success moving forward as we continue to expand.”
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