Within the past week, both Quiznos and Sbarro filed for bankruptcy protection. In the case of Quiznos, it was the third time in nearly as many years. The company currently has 2,100 stores, down from 5,000 at its peak, and a fraction of the nearly 40,000 Subway outlets around the globe.
On the surface, there’s a simple explanation: both places serve lousy food. Restaurant industry analysts also say that Quiznos was doomed due to the structure of its funding deal with a venture capital firm. That may be true, but it probably would have been doomed anyway at the moment that consumers took a bite of one of its sandwiches.
The Sbarro situation is more complex, and ties directly into an underlying cultural change in America. Most Sbarro restaurants are located in malls. Consumers are increasingly doing their shopping online, drastically reducing the customer pool in food courts. Thus, Sbarro is understandably suffering the same fate as J.C. Penney, Radio Shack, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aéropostale.
One of the more interesting theories about Sbarro is that the chain is in trouble because food sits out too long, presenting a negative image to customers. Most food safety guidelines mandate that prepared items shouldn’t be held at room temperature for more than two hours, or heated for more than four, and there’s no doubt that Sbarro is following these rules. In truth, though, lasagna held in a warming pan for three hours looks as unappetizing as it tastes.
The conventional wisdom in the food industry is that fast food outlets such as Quiznos and Sbarro have suffered in recent years with the rise of the “fast casual” segment. When you compare Sbarro to Chipotle, the current king of fast casual, some of the differences are murky. Certainly, Chipotle relies heavily on sustainably source ingredients, an area where Sbarro falls short. Yet Chipotle touts its dishes as “freshly prepared,” which is untrue, since many items (such as carnitas or barbacoa) are by necessity prepared in advance. Still, the stores are visually more appealing and the array of ingredients looks fresher—and in the minds of many, appearance equals reality.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating Histpry, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nationk, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June. For more information, go to amazon.com