Russo’s operates with a simple promise: “If it isn’t fresh, don’t serve it.” Founded in 1992 by Chef Anthony Russo, Russo’s New York Pizzeria is known as the only place to find authentic New York pizza and Italian dishes in Texas. Russo launched his Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen concept to complement the Pizzeria in 2008, with an expanded selection of Italian menu items. Current company operations include 28 restaurants in three states. Company forecasts call for 10 to 15 new restaurants in 2012.
Chef Anthony Russo, one of the Lone Star State’s most distinguished restauranteurs, is leading Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen from its home base in Houston into new U.S. markets. The south, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and untapped Texas markets are all target areas for franchise growth.
Menu items remain focused on traditional Italian favorites, with the company’s classic New York-style pizzas headlining the offerings. Recipes dating back to Chef Anthony’s grandparents are featured, including freshly prepared Gnocchi Bolognese, Chicken Picatta, Pasta Di Mare, and handcrafted Italian Cannolis. All items are made-from-scratch daily with fresh, premium ingredients that Russo has hand-selected himself.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Can you share with us how Russo’s New York Pizzeria got its start?
Chef Anthony Russo (AR): As the son of first-generation Italian immigrants, I grew up in a New Jersey home where the kitchen was the center of family life — the homemade food, the celebrations, and the many fond memories.
After earning my Chef’s distinction, I opened my first pizza place at age 18. Shortly after, I opened Anthony’s Pizzeria in Clear Lake, Texas. A move to Houston would bring Café Anthony and soon after, an upscale Italian restaurant named Russo Café Anthony. With still more to be desired, I founded Russo’s New York Pizzeria in 1992, which would prove to be a model for success.
Russo’s New York Pizzeria earned a loyal, almost cult-like following in the Houston area. Nowhere else could customers find such authentic New York-style pizza. But it wasn’t just the pizza, it was the preparation — the family recipe for hand-tossed dough, the sauce made from fresh-crushed California tomatoes, the imported Italian cheese blends. These little things made all the difference.
What’s more, we were among the first in Houston to prepare pizza in a coal-fired brick oven. Our customers appreciate the unmistakable bubbling of the crust, and the natural, baked-in flavors that enhance over time in a well-used oven. It was the preparation of pure ingredients that was unrivaled and remains that way today.
FC: Why did you decide to introduce a new concept, Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, instead of focusing on just your pizza brand, which has significant growth potential on its own?
AR: We felt that we had more to offer than just New York pizza. We had a real drive to create something a bit more sophisticated for upscale customers that are attracted to great food and an exceptional dining experience.
FC: How is Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen different from Russo’s New York Pizzeria, in terms of concept, menu, decor, and target market?
AR: We built our rich tradition around the Pizzeria, but our loyal fans always craved more. That’s why a few years ago, we launched Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, which delivers customers expanded options for lunch and dinner.
It’s a luxury to have two complementary concepts. One focused on a more fast-casual dining experience and the other on upscale casual family dining. It gives us and our franchisees a lot of flexibility when it comes to available real estate.
We’ve taken our award-winning Russo’s New York Pizzeria franchise and expanded the concept in every way: the menu, the building, and the target markets. What has remained the same? The freshest premium ingredients, the authentic Italian family recipes, the old world charm, and hospitality. It’s all been repackaged into an upscale, sit-down restaurant.
The upscale restaurant has an exquisite wine bar stocked with regional favorites, Chiantis, and other Italian varietals hand-selected by me, as well as an expanded and uniquely robust menu combining old world recipes with traditional New York-style pizza and a hint of Sicilian flair.
Each custom-built, 7,000 lb. coal-fired oven is the centerpiece of each restaurant. Blistering temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees infuse our hand-crafted pizzas and calzones with the most wonderful, authentic flavors. The process is not only crucial to Russo’s distinctive taste, but it’s also environment-friendly. The anthracite coal creates twice the energy per pound of wood and burns much cleaner, making it a delicious alternative.
AR: Proven, tested, tried and true systems are one of the biggest advantages of growing a restaurant. We have invested and reinvested in our business from our P.O.S. systems, to training, to our management structure, to marketing, to culinary research…and the list goes on. We’ve learned from our successes and we know what works.
FC: Describe the ideal franchisee for your two restaurant concepts.
AR: Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal Fired Italian Kitchen are about a love for fresh food, friends, and family. Although business ownership or management experience is a definite plus, we have no set background requirement or preset guidelines for the ideal franchisee. In fact, we have franchisees whose “former lives” range from engineers to accountants to lawyers. The only true recipe for success is the Russo’s franchise system itself.
If you are willing to put your trust in a proven, successful system and rely on a leadership team that has seen so many succeed before you, then you’re well on your way to becoming a wonderful franchisee.
FC: What is the ideal location and territory for each of your brands? Is there a particular region of the country where you’d like to focus on at this time?
AR: The ideal location for a Russo’s restaurant is a well-populated area with a good mix of residences and businesses. The household income in the areas where Russo’s locations are established average in excess of $80k.
FC: Franchisees across the board, but especially in the food category, are sensitive to the issue of franchisors profiting excessively from requiring franchisees to purchase only from approved suppliers. What can you tell us about your company’s policies to ease these concerns?
AR: We use a national and an international distributor, which we require all franchisees to use for our proprietary ingredients and specific items. They are dedicated to the Russo’s brand as well as our franchisees, and provide quick response and reliable service. Using one national and international distributor keeps the entire franchise system fluid and ensures that our customers are receiving the best quality food.
We allow franchisees to purchase meats, vegetables, and produce from their local market to achieve the best possible pricing available on those items.
AR: Challenges are inherent in any business. Some of the most prevalent in the restaurant business involve location, staffing, and cost controls. However, as a very visible benefit of franchising over opening an individual restaurant, franchisees can always lean on corporate knowledge and experience to help alleviate these difficulties and avoid the pitfalls.
FC: What are your future plans for the growth and development of Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen?
AR: We are at the beginning of a journey we intend to continue for a very long time. We hope to partner with many more excellent franchisees to bring Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Russo’s Coal Fired Italian Kitchen to communities worldwide. There is a great need for quality Italian cuisine and our concepts really deliver.
We hope to grow our concept to 100 restaurants by 2015 and it only gets better from there!