Mary's Pizza set to launch 'fast-casual' restaurants

SONOMA - After more than 50 years becoming one of the North Bay's most recognized Italian eateries, Mary's Pizza Shack plans to unveil a new "fast-casual" restaurant chain late this year or early 2010, according to Chief Executive Officer Vince Albano.

"We have been working on the concept for a little over a year, but it was kind of on the back burner for a while," Mr. Albano said. The grandson of founder Mary Fazio, he took over the reigns as CEO June 5 after the previous chief executive, brother-in-law Cullen Williamson, left the position to lead the new company.

"We decided now is the best time to launch with the economy," Mr. Albano said. "This concept is the fastest-growing in the industry. There has been fast food and casual dining, but nothing really in between."

The company chose Rostini's as a working name for the new offshoot, though it could change before the board votes to officially launch the new business no later than January. Mr. Albano said Mary's will focus investments in the new chain for about two years before turning back to expanding its founding brand.

The new business will have the same shareholders as Mary's.

Mr. Williamson described the new restaurant as having the speed of fast food but with higher quality. Customers go to a counter to order, receive a number and then have the food delivered to their table. The restaurant will utilize some of the family's classic recipes and house a brick oven for roasting pizzas, chicken and vegetables. Plates will average between $8 and $9, compared with Mary's average of about $12.50.

The company's board is currently working on a prototype and finalizing the interior look. The aesthetic is roughly described as "Italian hip."

"The design is not going to be over the top Italian, Chianti bottles or anything like that, and it will not be like Mary's with history and things tied to the original shack," Mr. Williamson said.

"It will definitely have that Italian feel, but we also want to have a more hip feel."

He said his goal is to open at least two locations in the first two years in Sonoma and Napa counties. Currently, startup and operation of the stores is expected to be about 40 percent less than a new shack location.

Mary's is based in Sonoma and opened its first restaurant in 1959. The company currently has 18 restaurants in the North Bay and is among the top 20 largest private-sector employers in Sonoma County.

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