Villa Enterprises Builds on Winning Forumula –Family, Fanaticism, Fresh Ingredients
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Villa Enterprises Builds on Winning Forumula –Family, Fanaticism, Fresh Ingredients

Once the simple lunch of pedestrians, pizza has evolved into a system of two parties. There’s still the beer inspired, dripping-with-oil pepperoni pizza party, but now there’s also the silver tray catered caviar pizza and champagne party. Somewhere in the middle is the high quality, no frills pizza made by companies such as Villa Enterprises (Villa).

Oddly enough, pizza’s popularity has grown simultaneously with the explosion of low carbohydrate, and low-fat diets, suggesting the huge impact so-called gourmet pizza has had on pizza’s identity. But long before the gourmet trend began, owners of some New York style pizzerias were inspecting, selecting, and baking with top grade ingredients. In fact offering healthy food has always been a goal of Villa, according to its president, Biagio (Ben) Scotto, son of Villa Enterprises’ founder, Michele Scotto.

With the acquisition of Green Leaf Grill (renamed Green Leaf), which offers salads and soups, the company laid claim to the healthful
quick serve slice of the food & beverage pie, one of the most under-represented, but fastest-growing niches in airport dining.
Apparently that was another move in a long tradition of successful strategies.

“We have known nothing but growth for 40 years since my dad and mom started from a single store,” says Scotto.

For most of its history, Villa, (known casually as Villa Pizza), operated only in malls and a few street locations. In the last five or six years however, a frenzy of hard work in the business development department, led by vice president Adam Torine, culminated in deals in several airports, and the acquisition of Everything Yogurt in 2003. That purchase included Green Leaf, (for which Villa hired an executive chef to fine-tune the menu), South Philly Steak & Fries, Bananas smoothie shop, and Treat Street, all of which are included among Villa’s 26 airport food & beverage sites.

Sixty percent of Villa’s stores are company owned, but when executives decided to focus on developing the franchising side of the business, Villa started to expand rapidly. So much in fact, that its owners recently bought a five-story building to headquarter 40 employees in Morristown, N.J. Scotto says the Villa family is “very hands-on,” and he and his dad rolled up their sleeves to pack, move and unpack boxes during the move.

Beyond the home office, (which is managed by one of Scotto’s sisters), Villa has 2,000 frontline employees who work in stores or franchises throughout 36 states. But the Scottos are looking way beyond the shining seas to Great Britain, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Mexico, Qatar, and Russia. Forty units are in the pipeline globally, including signed deals for eight more airport locations, solidifying Villa’s competitive position as a food & beverage operator in airports as well as malls. By the end of the year three units in
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International (ATL), three in Albany International (ALB), one in Philadelphia International (PHL), and
one in Boston-Logan International (BOS) are expected to be open.

“We’ve always been fortunate to grow qualitatively,” says Scotto. “Bringing in Kevin [Kern] as well, gives us more power to go out
and do more.” “In regard to the airport business,” adds Scotto, “it’s becoming a bigger part of our overall mix and as airports remodel and expand, we want to be part of those decisions by continuing to be a positive presence.”

Scotto says Villa’s product standards have always been high. “You can’t forget that you’re putting that product in your body,” he says.

In line with that thinking is Villa’s executive grooming strategy. All executives are sent into the kitchen as part of their training, no matter what their area of expertise.

“We want our employees to know every aspect of the business,” says Scotto.

“It’s harder than it looks,” said Kern of spinning balls of dough into edible crusts worthy of the Villa brand. “Roberto, who’s from Peru, was teaching me,” he adds. “He was very proud of his job, and would not put out what I made, which showed me the pride has come all the way down, and I kind of like that. I can stand back and feel good about that.”


Villa’s driving force is the family’s pride in its brand, says Scotto, who boasts that he and other family members are meticulous about what goes into the food. Scotto’s cousin, Toni Scotti, regional director for the east, for example, is said to be “tough” on quality control.

“Part of our fanaticism is you have to buy proprietary ingredients, flour, yeast, cheese, pasta,” he says. “Those are fundamental items that make a big difference in quality.”

“And everything’s baked, nothing’s fried,” adds Kern.

While they don’t brand their own ingredients, Scotto and his brother Anthony, do the purchasing, inspect the products of several different companies, and evaluate them before choosing suppliers, whether in California or Italy. Using high quality ingredients is the key to acquiring and maintaining a top-notch reputation he says, and Villa requires all franchisees and independent owners to buy ingredients from the same places. “We have strict controls,” says Sotto. “We have books, requirements and whole training classes in Minnesota where we send all our general managers, franchisees, and executives. It’s three full weeks for franchisees.

“We have Nick Valavanis, director of franchise operations, and his people visiting franchisees making sure they’re following company specifications, or just shaking hands.

“Our roots are in New York pizzerias, that’s the biggest part of our portfolio,” says Scotto, who was born in Sicily, and came over with his family as a young boy. “Our dad worked on passenger ships in Italy and he came home two weeks a year.” No one in the
family liked it that way, he says, so in seeking a better life, Michele Scotto packed up the family and moved everyone to the U.S.

“With some recipes he learned in Italy and his customer service knowledge,” says Scotto, his father opened his first pizzeria on
Broadway in New York City next to the Ed Sullivan Theater, (now the home of The Late Show with David Letterman). But the mark of achievement was the celebrated opening of a second store on 42 Street at Eighth Avenue. “I remember watching,” says
Scotto. “They closed off Broadway and had a big stage prepared.” After that the company was ‘on fire’. “We started opening in the
Jersey suburbs in shopping centers and then went to malls in the tri-state area.” Villa also has a presence in universities, stadiums, and


“We started expanding a lot in the 1980s in malls,” says Scotto. The inspiration for opening in airports was no different from what drove Villa in other locations, but it took longer to realize that goal. “We have always looked for new venues, and try to be proactive, not reactive,” says Scotto. “There was a time when the airport was controlled by contract feeders, so as we saw
opportunities for new restaurants open up, that encouraged companies like Villa Pizza.” Airport locations have been growing in
double digit figures for the last six years, except for 2002, says Scotto. “If we can keep that going we’re okay.”

It looks like there’s no ceiling on Villa’s long-running upward mobility, and Scotto says it’s in part because the airport customers and
employees are literally hungry for good food. “Just looking back at airports and some of the quality five to ten years ago in them, you’d pay a fortune for bad items. There was no competition and you’d be stuck if there was a delay with the airlines. We’ve seen airports improve. We are competing every day for the customer’s patronage, and what better avenue to do it in than in airports where so many people need to nourish themselves. It’s a great opportunity for us.We want to get into it in a much bigger way.

“In Newark International,” says Kern, “people were getting on the tram to come eat our pizza. We had people lined up at Green Leaf in the food court for breakfast, and McDonald’s was empty.”

While that may speak more to behavior trends, it does show Villa is giving the people what they want.



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