Fazoli’s debuted its fast-casual concept, Venti Tre Modern Italian, in Baltimore this week and already plans to open two more locations in the area by the end of the year.

Venti Tre, which means “23” in Italian, offers a familiar fast-casual service format in which guests first pick either a piada, salad or pasta as the base of their entrées, then move down the make line to customize their meals with at least 23 fresh toppings, such as Italian meatballs, rosemary-garlic steak or Tuscan lemon chicken.

Specialties include sauces for pasta or piadas — like house-made “Pomodoro” or “vino bianco” — house-made salad dressings, focaccia croutons and fried capers.

Carl Howard, chief executive of Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli’s, said lunch traffic on Wednesday had already doubled from that of Tuesday during Venti Tre’s soft launch at the brand new Canton Crossings lifestyle center in Baltimore.

“We’re very optimistic it will perform at the average unit volume of a fast-casual restaurant or higher,” Howard said.

Venti Tre’s menu also offers a selection of cheeses, signature focaccia breads, soups, desserts and an Italian-soda bar, as well as beer and wine.

Through the first few days of Venti Tre’s operation, piadas made up about 40 percent of sales, with pasta accounting for another 25 percent and salads the remaining 35 percent, Howard estimated.

The concept has a familiar fast-casual format.

“We modeled it out and thought piadas would sell well, but we didn’t think salads would move quite this well,” he said. “That’s okay. It proves to us we have the right location, because people are coming here looking to eat healthier and to customize their meals.”

Howard expressed confidence that Venti Tre “could mirror the development of a Panera or Chipotle,” as long as the concept could secure the right real estate. Two more locations are under development in the Baltimore area and are scheduled to open this year, and for next year Howard is scouting more sites in the District of Columbia, Philadelphia and markets in between.

“There are not a lot of readily available, great-retail and great-demographic locations just sitting empty, but they’re being built,” he said. “I’ll easily max out the capital planned for this concept in 2015, and we’re targeting five to eight new locations.”

With Fazoli’s infrastructure for site selection, training, supply chain and operations, as well as financial backing from its owner, private-equity firm Sun Capital Partners, Venti Tre should have the resources to grow quickly, Howard said. He acknowledged and complimented other emerging fast-casual Italian players, such as Piada Italian Street Food out of Columbus, Ohio, but nonetheless was very bullish about Venti Tre’s prospects for expansion, beginning primarily with the East Coast.

By the end of 2014, Fazoli’s is expected to complete the process of registering Venti Tre for future franchise growth. Howard said the company would be opportunistic in awarding franchises of Venti Tre to experienced restaurant operators while looking to build company-owned stores of the new concept as well.

“We’ll have the paperwork done by the end of the year, and we might not sign anybody by then, but I have two candidates now I’d feel comfortable franchising to,” Howard said. “They’re both active board members and former CEOs of restaurant chains. … So we can expedite growth quickly, as long as we hire the right franchisees.”

Fazoli’s has approximately 220 restaurants in 27 states. Boca Raton, Fla.-based Sun Capital acquired the brand in 2006.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN