The Spice Guys

Premium sandwiches and signature pizzas are among the fresh, fast-casual fare at Spicy Pickle.

Don’t confuse Spicy Pickle with your local sub shop. What began as a small operation in Denver now is a multi-store chain with locations in select markets across the United States. Its claims to fame: fresh breads, high-quality meats and cheeses, gourmet sandwiches, signature Pizzetti, a “build your own” menu and, perhaps most importantly, a fun atmosphere. Here, Spicy Pickle managers Marc Geman and Tony Walker discuss what separates their operation from others in the fast-casual segment.
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery: What are the dominant consumer trends when it comes to fast-casual and the sandwich market? How are these trends driving your growth?
Spicy Pickle: Consumers are looking for food that tastes great, the kind you would expect from high-profile fine-dining establishments, but delivered in an informal, friendly environment and in a timely fashion to meet the fast pace of today’s lifestyle.  Everyone claims to have “quality,” “fresh,” “gourmet” and “healthy” choices, but to stand out, you need flavor profiles that consumers recognize at the first bite and turn them into repeat customers. Our selections were created by culinary partners and have just the right mixtures of toppings, spreads, meats, cheeses and fresh breads that provide a refreshing, different and delicious experience.
SF&WB: How is Spicy Pickle different from other fast-casual restaurants, such as Panera Bread or Subway?
SP: Subway and many other “sub” shops are more like fast food than fast-casual.  They serve basic meats, cheeses and toppings with par-baked breads at prices that are more geared to bulk and price than taste. Panera Bread has similar menu items to ours, but is more of an institutional atmosphere in a larger environment. Spicy Pickle is more discriminating in its menu mix and favors a lighter, more fun atmosphere in a smaller environment with an almost waiter-service experience.
SF&WB: What do consumers like most about the Spicy Pickle concept?
SP: They like the wide variety of options. Our customers like that they can choose from our creations, as well as design their own sandwich. Our customers also tell us they appreciate the high quality of meats, cheeses and breads we serve.
SF&WB: What if I’m a boring guy and like only ham and cheese sandwiches?
SP: We have the “build your own” menu, which provides combination possibilities both for those who like it rather plain and those that are a bit experimental. As long as the products are the best in their class, even a basic sandwich can taste great.
SF&WB: When developing Spicy Pickle’s menu and adding new items, what types of bread do you look for? What qualities or characteristics do you desire in your bread and roll choices?
SP: We look for breads that only artisan bakers can produce and that fit the region we are in. We are not such a cookie-cutter company that we have a mass production bakery produce our breads. We truly search out artisan bakers.
SF&WB: What type of format do you prefer for your breads? Fully baked? Fully baked frozen? Par-baked? As you expand, do you plan to adopt another format or possibly bake your own breads on the premises?
SP: Fresh, fresh, fresh. We currently get our bread seven days a week fresh. We have been doing that from day one with much success. In our efforts to improve quality and freshness even more, we are currently testing an in-house bread program.
SF&WB: Why did you select Il Fornaio to supply your breads?
SP: We chose Il Fornaio for one reason, and that was for their quality. From day one, we set out to be known for the quality of the food and Il Fornaio understood our passion for that.
SF&WB: What types of bread and roll products would not be appropriate for your restaurant concept?
SP: Any bread that is mass-produced. I have met with at least 30 bread companies that wanted to do our bread on a national level, [but] they just don’t have that artisan feel and flavor to them.
SF&WB: How are your thin-crust Pizzetti different from other pizzas out there?
SP: We don’t offer your basic pepperoni pizza; we push the envelope for fast-casual. We had a pizza with white truffle oil drizzled on it; even though we pulled it from the menu in some markets, we were not afraid [of using] such a high-end ingredient in the fast-casual segment.
SF&WB: Can you describe what makes the crust unique? This isn’t Colorado “frou-frou” style pizza, is it?
SP: No, no. This is just great dough that we developed with another company, so we have great consistency, and we can insure a great experience when the customer visits. What makes it great is it’s simple and it tastes good.
SF&WB: What is your favorite frozen pizza?
SP: Freschetta. When I heard [chef] Tony Mantuano was involved with the company, I knew it would be quality. I did a cooking interview for him at his family restaurant in Kenosha, Wisc. [at] Mangia trattoria e pizzeria. I was impressed with his style and passion for food.
SF&WB: What markets are you targeting in 2006, and how quickly do you plan to expand in the future?
SP: We are developing markets in South California, Texas, Reno-Sacramento, Oregon/Washington, and, of course, the front range of Colorado. We are also working on the Virginia/D.C. and New York areas. However, we believe there are a lot of underserved markets that only have two- or three-store capacity based on demographics, but have a very sophisticated working population, which will patronize our concept. Additionally, real estate, construction and operational costs are less in these markets, providing, in some cases, higher profit margins for the franchisee. Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Knoxville, Tenn., are examples, but there are literally hundreds of these markets in the U.S. Expansion, however, is always tempered by location. After all, everyone knows, and everyone is right, that location, location, location are the first three most important factors in site selection. We simply do not want to settle for second best. This will, in all probability, throttle our expansion, but in the long run, provide a happy and profitable franchise system. SF&WB