Interview: Anthony Russo, founder, Russo’s New York Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen 

Russo’s New York Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen is expanding internationally with deals in Qatar and London; we spoke to the founder, Anthony Russo, at the International Franchise Show in London. Pizza franchise brands remain universally popular with their familiar and tasty offering and Russo’s New York Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen focuses on quality. Customers will always come back for a tasty pizza, and founder Anthony Russo believes he has spotted a gap in the market with his New York-style pizzas. 

Russo believes he can bring his quality pizza franchise brand to the discerning palates of Europe. By adapting his menus to local tastes, creating everything fresh in-store but building on his core of New York-style pizzas, Russo believes he can popularize the brand and style of pizza across the continent. 

We caught up with Anthony at the International Franchise Show in London on April 8 at his booth to speak about his brand and where he wants to take it. 

RP: With authentic Italian pizzas and cuisine, how do you make sure that every franchise location is able to maintain the quality that your customers expect? 

AR: Our concept is New York-style pizza. So, it’s an American Italian style pizza, which is very unique and different, which you don’t get here in Europe. The Italian pizzas are different to New York-style pizza, it’s more Neapolitan style whereas New York is thinner, it’s crispier and it travels well.  

So, once you taste New York-style pizza, you’ll notice the huge difference with Italian-style pizza. The toppings are similar. We use prosciutto, burrata cheese, fresh mozzarella and we have all the gourmet Italian toppings. 

I grew up eating Neapolitan pizza and New York-style pizza, so I was in the kitchen and in my family restaurant for many years. But I wanted to start a New York concept because there’s a niche for it, you can’t get it in a lot of places. 

RP: Have you ever had to make significant changes to your menus or processes because you found that it wasn’t scalable when you franchised your concept? 

AR: Not really.  

We’ll make things fresh from scratch, in-house. We don’t want to take shortcuts. There’s a lot of chains out there and they want to expand rapidly, and they don’t want to adapt their pre-made pizza sauce, pre-made dough, or have a commissary that is already pre-made in advance, whereas I’ve always believed that if it isn’t fresh, don’t serve it.  

Customers can tell the difference between a Russo’s pizza versus another known pizza chain, and it’s just okay, right? But I want to get that mom-and-pop experience. Making pizza dough is easy. You have to use the right kind of flour, the right kind of olive oil to make pizza dough, which is time-consuming, but it pays off because your food cost lowers. My cost of goods is average at 90 per cent of my food cost. With other chains food costs are about 28 to 30 per cent because they buy stuff already made with a third party. 

RP: When expanding internationally, do you tread a line between authenticity and adapting to local tastes, or is it one or the other? 

AR: I do both. We customize our menu for each market. We want to ask them what local flavors they want, but at the same time, we want to serve truly authentic New York-style pizza. That’s not going to change, but we’ll add some gourmet toppings or some unique toppings locally. 

Salads, for example, we do some risotto on some menus, and for pizza toppings we do shrimp. We also have lamb and other unique toppings that work for the Middle East market. So, we do things like that and we have to adapt to some of the local ingredients. 

But our core is always New York-style pizza.  

RP: Are there any exciting markets around the world that you are making a special effort to get into? 

AR: For sure. Like I said, there’s not too many New York-style pizza brands expanding globally. I think that’s kind of unique and now’s the time to do it to expand into new markets.  

We have restaurants in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and people who want quality pizza. I’m excited about it because there’s not many chains that do what we do in our kitchen and because of the European market, especially because they know food. So, they would appreciate our type of pizza in Europe, which I think is my next development target market. 

RP: What are some of the biggest mistakes that pizza franchisors are making today when entering the market? 

AR: Research. I think if you don’t adapt locally to consumers, the local markets may not support your business. I think you can do some research with adding local flavours to the menu, though some franchise brands are very strict and aren’t flexible to adapt.  

I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes. That could be on beverages, desserts and even some meal options. But you always want to adapt and be flexible with menu items. Some brands have a strength, they just don’t want to not change the menu at all and that did was hurt the brand and make success difficult. 

Each market is different. I think they do that because they want to keep their standard. That’s why some brands fail in international markets, because they’re not adaptable. 

If you missed the International Franchise Show in London last week, here is our roundup of the day.

Interviewed by Raghav Patel for Global Franchise