Uno Pizzeria and Grill, the deep-dish pizza restaurant chain that switched years ago to a menu emphasizing pages of healthy food, is returning to its cheesy roots. Calorie counters beware.
In 2008, the West Roxbury company had happily embraced a new title, bestowed by Health magazine: healthiest restaurant chain in America.
Now Uno’s traditional fare — including its 2,300-calorie Chicago Classic individual pizza — is back near the front of the menu.
Said Dee Hadley, chief marketing officer at Uno:
“If you came into our restaurant and tried to find pizza on our menu, you would have had a hard time because we hid it in the back. It’s about going back to what made the brand great to begin with.”
Hadley and a new team of executives have spent more than $10 million to remodel dozens of restaurants and start a rebranding campaign. The goal is to emphasize Uno’s pizza heritage, a way to stand out in a waning casual dining business teeming with big competitors like Applebee’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s, and Red Robin.
Uno was founded in Chicago in 1943, serving thick-crust pizza that curved up the sides of its deep metal pan. The pizza was so unusual that the original owners, Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, gave away samples to entice people to try it, Chicago historian Tim Samuelson said.
It paid off, and the restaurant became wildly popular.
In 1979, a Boston restaurateur, Aaron Spencer, became the first franchisee and opened an Uno on Boylston Street. Spencer continued to expand the chain in Boston and beyond. Over time, Uno grew to more than 200 restaurants.
But the company began to distance itself from its pizza roots in the early 2000s. Like many other casual restaurant chains, it expanded the menu to appeal to as many customers as possible, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at the food industry research firm Technomic in Chicago.
In an increasingly health-conscious time, people weren’t flocking to Uno for pizza that often topped 1,700 calories for an individual serving. Every restaurant, from McDonald’s to Applebee’s, looked for ways to cut calories.
Around 2005, Uno began a campaign to cultivate a healthier image. The brand, which had already changed its name to Uno Chicago Grill from Pizzeria Uno, eliminated trans fats from the menu and listed ingredients and calories on touch-screen kiosks. The new menu featured pages of salads.
Uno hired a full-time nutritionist and started a nutrition advisory board, which included a cardiologist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Creating a menu with delicious health-conscious options is one of our priorities,” Frank W. Guidara, then Uno’s chief executive, said a few years into the process. In an April 2006 Boston Globe article, Guidara said sales were up almost 2 percent because of the changes.
But the menu changes turned Uno into another Applebee’s, with a broad range of dishes and no emphasis on anything, Tristano said. At one point, the menu stretched to 22 pages. The restaurant’s deep dish pizzas appeared on page 18.
“They really changed the menu and mimicked what other casual restaurants were doing,” Tristano said. “Today we’ve learned that menus are too big, and casual dining brands are too ubiquitous.”
Uno discovered that the hard way. The company faced heavy debt and declining sales during the recession, when people ate out less frequently. Uno suffered net losses of $22 million in 2009 and filed for bankruptcy protection the following year.
Now, a new team of executives is trying to move forward with more than a nod to the past. The main objective: Give customers what they want.
Hadley said that when she joined in May 2013, the company went back through consumer studies for the prior five years to understand what people liked about Uno. Not surprisingly, the answer was deep dish pizza.
“We’ve really made a commitment to send a message to our consumer base that we’re bringing back the soul of the brand that we’ve lost,” Hadley said.
The first step was to rename the restaurant Uno Pizzeria and Grill, followed by a redesign of the restaurants. About 40 of the chain’s 82 corporate-owned restaurants have been remodeled, starting last year, at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per eatery, Hadley said.
At an updated restaurant in Braintree, the yellow and white checkered tablecloths and Tiffany pendants that dangled from the ceiling have been replaced with wood tables and modern light fixtures. Construction crews removed a wall in the bar and took down glass partitions in the dining room for a more open-concept feel. The restaurant added a new bar top and high tables, doubling the size of the bar.
Daily specials are written on chalkboards, and simple art adorns the walls with phrases like “We owe it all to a man and his pan.”
Uno says the remodeling is starting to pay off. Updated restaurants have experienced a 10 percent sales growth, she said.
The timing isn’t ideal for a return to high-calorie pizza fare, however. The federal government will require chains to list calorie counts on their menus by the end of this year.
Some diners won’t care. But others may choose smaller portions or different dishes when they realize the high calorie count of a favorite item.
“The calories on the menu will be really an eye-opener to the consumer,” said Joan Salge Black, a professor in the nutrition program at Boston University.
While gluten-free and low-fat items haven’t disappeared from the Uno menu, the nutrition advisory board isn’t active, and Uno no longer employs a nutritionist.
“We want to make sure healthy choices are available, but if you’re looking for those things you’re not thinking about us,” Hadley said. “Strong brands have to stand for something that is different from the rest of the pack. Our heritage is deep dish pizza.”