November 15, 2013
David Karam is quick to give credit to others for his ascent in the fast-food industry.
In 1986, he joined his father, Joseph Karam, at Cedar Enterprises in Columbus, helping to build the company as the third-largest franchisee of Wendy’s restaurants. Karam helped run Wendy’s from the corporate side for more than three years in the late 2000s.
Now, he’s leading pizza maker Sbarro through its first fast-casual launch — Pizza Cucinova, which is being prototyped in Columbus. He credits architectural design firm Chipman & Associates (Los Angeles) and branding firm Sterling-Rice Group (Chicago), as well as Anthony Missano, Sbarro’s president of business development, for bringing the concept to life.
The Dispatch caught up with Karam on opening night of the first of two Pizza Cucinova restaurants planned for Columbus, this one at 4044 Morse Crossing in Easton Town Center.
Q. How did you get into the fast-food industry?
A. I started working for the second Wendy’s restaurant on Henderson Road in Columbus the day I turned 14. Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, had opened his first restaurant about four months earlier in November 1969. My father, a Columbus attorney, got involved as a Wendy’s investor at a very early stage, so I had the chance to work for the company.
Q. What was your first job at Wendy’s?
A. As a crew kid. I worked there four years. During that period, my dad decided to become a Wendy’s franchisee in Las Vegas. After four years in public accounting, I went to work for my dad. We had a small franchise — 13 restaurants in Las Vegas — with our head office in Columbus.
Q. You also were a Wendy’s executive for a time, right?
A. When Wendy’s hit a wall and put itself up for sale in 2007, I tried to buy the company. Ultimately, my bid fell short, but the winning investor, now known as Trian Partners, asked me to run the company for about 31/2 years.
Q. Why did you leave Wendy’s in late 2011?
A. I felt good about the changes we had put in place at Wendy’s, and I was interested in getting back into an entrepreneurial opportunity in the higher-growth segments of the quick-service industry, namely, fast casual.
Q. How did you end up at Sbarro?
A. When I was bidding for Wendy’s, one of the prospective investors was a large hedge fund called Stone Tower Capital. That firm passed on the Wendy’s investment, but when its leaders heard I was leaving Wendy’s, they asked me to lead Sbarro, which the fund had taken into bankruptcy.
I wasn’t ready to step back into a CEO role, so I agreed to go on their board as chairman in January 2012.
Q. What are some things you learned as Sbarro chairman?
A. Sbarro is a large chain — 1,110 restaurants — but it was struggling because it had too much debt and was dependent solely on mall and airport stores. While I believed we could turn around the brand, I also felt we had the infrastructure and resources to develop or acquire a brand in the emerging segment of the pizza category — artisan, fast-casual pizza.
So I led the development of what became Pizza Cucinova. After about nine months, the board wanted to make a leadership change, so I took responsibility for both chairman and CEO duties in April. We’re developing management disciplines that are improving Sbarro performance, but we’re also developing an extension of its brand that will allow us to move away from the mall and contemporize its operations and the menu.
Q. Brand extension?
A. We’re not ready to unveil it yet, but we are planning to open our first Sbarro Brooklyn Fresh in Columbus in the late first quarter or early second quarter. We don’t have a specific site yet. Sbarro Brooklyn Fresh is a contemporary expression of the Sbarro brand.
The Sbarro brand hasn’t gotten credit for its quality. The dough is made fresh every day. It’s one of the only pizza chains that uses 100 percent, whole-milk mozzarella. We’re repackaging that quality in a fresh expression, with new logos and store designs that’ll start by opening outside of malls.
Q. What about Pizza Cucinova?
A. This is truly a Neapolitan-style pizza. We use imported flour from Italy, which is the finest-milled flour you can buy. All the toppings are freshly prepared, and most of them are locally sourced.
We make thin-crust, artisan pizzas that cook in three minutes in very hot ovens. We use nontraditional toppings, such as wild mushrooms, white truffle oil, potatoes and gorgonzola cheese. We have five on-trend salads, as well as a prosciutto board. And we have one dessert item — cheesecake served only on the day it’s made.
We also have nonalcoholic drinks, six wines and eight craft beers.
Q. Any ideas on how Pizza Cucinova will grow?
A. This is the first Cucinova, and the second will be on Olentangy River Road. We have a third that will open in May in Cincinnati. So we have the first three already established. We’ll continue to develop both company-owned stores and franchisee-owned stores, on a very selective basis.
Q. What have you enjoyed most about developing the new concept?
A. I enjoyed bringing Pizza Cucinova to life. It’s almost like giving birth to a baby. We have had a wonderful team.