Dishing up new choices Old Spaghetti Factory tweaks its pasta-filled menu to add low-carb entrees for customers
01/29/04, JONATHAN BRINCKMAN
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How do you respond to the low-carbohydrate diet craze sweeping America if your image is tied inextricably to high-carb pasta? Old Spaghetti Factory restaurants are trying to answer that question after posting their first-ever same-store sales declines, in 2003.
OSF International, which manages the 45-restaurant chain from its headquarters on the Willamette River near John's Landing, last week rolled out new menus in Vancouver and Hillsboro prominently featuring salmon, chicken and eggplant parmesan. The company's flagship Portland restaurant was the first with the changes Dec. 1.
The new menu features Old Spaghetti Factory's signature spaghetti sauce -- browned butter and mizithra cheese -- on a side of broccoli rather than pasta.
The company retained chef Horst Mager -- a founder of the Western Culinary Institute and Portland's Rheinlander and Gustav's restaurants -- to formulate sophisticated menu additions, broadening its offerings far beyond spaghetti and lasagna.
It has put its staff through a program designed by Texas hospitality consultant and book author T.J. Schier. A key goal: instructing waiters and waitresses to make sure diners know they have low-carb options.
And the company, with restaurants in 14 states and Japan, is investing large amounts of money -- $350,000 in its hometown Portland restaurant alone -- to upgrade kitchens with new chillers, steam kettles and other equipment needed to produce the new menu items quickly and well.
"My dad always taught me that if you stand still in business you get run over," said Chris Dussin, OSF president.
Dussin said he thinks a sour economy, the war in Iraq and the Atkins "diet craze" all contributed to the 2003 sales drop experienced by many company restaurants. He expects the changes will get sales climbing again.
Two new stores in 2003 Overall sales are still growing at the Old Spaghetti Factory -- from $104 million in 2002 to $105 million in 2003 -- partly because it opened two new restaurants last year, one in Vancouver and the other in Orem, Utah. But "store over store" sales were down in 2003, said David Cook, OSF's executive vice president, and sales at some restaurants dropped dramatically.
"Pasta was the perfect food some years ago," said Cook. "Now we are being told that pasta is bad."
The chain faces a serious challenge, at least until a widespread cultural obsession with the Atkins Diet wanes. In the meantime, it isn't alone in the restaurant industry.
Sarah Joannides, the owner of Assaggio, a Southeast Portland Italian eatery also known for its pasta, said sales at her restaurant have dropped about 10 percent a year for three years in a row.
"It's been a struggle for us because we were so focused on pasta," said Joannides, who has also added nonpasta dishes to her menu. "So many times I've heard customers say, 'I used to come here all the time but I don't anymore because I've stopped eating pasta.' "
Battling from strength The key to success for the Old Spaghetti Factory, restaurant experts say, will be making changes without disrupting a formula that has worked well for more than three decades. That formula has driven the chain's sales from $400,000 in 1969 to $105 million last year.
The company, owned by Gus and Sally Dussin and their two children, now has 3,500 employees. It's now the nation's largest importer of mizithra cheese, Chris Dussin said, bringing in 250,000 pounds a year.
"Their concept wasn't developed overnight so they shouldn't change it overnight," said Saed Mohseni, chief executive of McCormick & Schmicks, a Portland-based chain of seafood restaurants. "They have positioned themselves extremely well in terms of value, in terms of what the consumer gets."
The key to the Old Spaghetti Factory's success has long been full-service meals at fast-food prices, served in large restaurants with intimate spaces created by Tiffany lamps, refurbished trolley cars and lots of gleaming brass.
"We will look the same" even after the low-carb additions, said Chris Dussin, who has increasingly taken the reins from his 78-year-old father.
Giving diners a lot for their money has always been a hallmark of the Old Spaghetti Factory. A dinner of spaghetti with white clam sauce at the chain's West Coast restaurants, for example, costs $7.50 and includes minestrone soup or a salad, fresh bread, coffee, tea, iced tea or milk and spumoni or vanilla ice cream.
A look at the kitchen in action this week at the Portland restaurant showed how Old Spaghetti Factory keeps prices down. The operation is very efficient.
Rapid-fire service Kitchen manager Devadas Murali, a wiry man with a trim goatee, orchestrated a bustling show. To his right were slotted plastic containers, each holding one serving of nearly-cooked spaghetti. To his left was a computer printer spewing out orders.
Murali grabbed each order as it appeared, calling out instructions to his team, dropping the required number of pasta containers into a machine holding near-boiling water. When each container popped up -- after exactly a minute -- Murali drained it, poured the steaming pasta onto a plate and slid the plate down the counter where sauce was ladled.
The orders are getting more specific each month, Murali said. An order for Caesar salad, for example, popped off the printer with specific specifications: "no dressing, no croutons." The new nonpasta entrees -- eggplant, salmon or chicken -- already make up 10 percent of the orders at the Portland restaurant.
"Before it was just spaghetti, spaghetti, spaghettis, it was fill the plate and it's gone," Murali said. " Now I'm more of an expeditor."
Something for everyone Despite the changes, Old Spaghetti Factory will remained focused on pasta, said Cook, because that's what the restaurant is best known for.
The company's plan is ensuring that diners know there are pasta alternatives on the menu, he said. "When you cater to large group you don't want to lose them all because of one person."
Scott Hume, managing editor of Restaurants and Institutions, the largest food service industry trade magazine, said that strategy makes sense. He said Old Spaghetti Factory is well-advised to stick to its core strength -- pasta -- while making sure diners know they have low-carb options.
"You want to avoid the veto," he said. "If four or five people are going out to for a meal, you don't want one guy to say let's not go to the OSF because all they serve is pasta."
Dussin said the company is positive that its changes will do the trick. OSF expects sales to rise 4 percent to 6 percent this year.
"We have to give customers what they want or they are not going to come here as often," Dussin said. "People wanted a little more variety than what we had to offer."
Jonathan Brinckman: 503-221-8190; jbrinckman~news.oregonian.com