Il Fornaio (America) Corporation History

Address:
770 Tamalpais Drive, Suite 400
Corte Madera, California 94925
U.S.A.

Telephone: (415) 945-0500
Fax: (415) 925-0906

Website:
Public Company
Incorporated: 1980
Employees: 2,000
Sales: $83.14 million (1998)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: ILFO
SICs: 5812 Eating Places; 2051 Bakery Products

Company Perspectives:

Il Fornaio's mission is to provide our customers with the most authentic Italian experience outside of Italy. We realize our mission by being students and teachers of Italian culinary traditions, preparations and presentations, infusing our heritage into everything we do. We realize our mission by putting our employees first so that our customers can come first. We realize our mission by executing a profitable business strategy that rewards our shareholders without compromising the quality of our products. We realize our mission by developing an atmosphere of camaraderie and fun in all our endeavors, of celebrating every day the Italian in all of us.

Company History:

Il Fornaio (America) Corporation owns and operates 17 full-service, upscale Italian restaurants and five wholesale bakeries. The company's name, Il Fornaio, is Italian for "the baker." The restaurants are located mostly in California, but an Il Fornaio restaurant and bakery can also be found in each of the following cities: Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Seattle, Washington. These white-tablecloth Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana (restaurants with bakeries) serve premium-quality Italian cuisine based on authentic regional Italian recipes. Each restaurant houses a retail market (known as a panetteria) offering the company's unique baked goods, prepared foods, and a variety of Il Fornaio-brand products. The company's five California-based Il Fornaio Panificio production bakeries offer more than 50 varieties of handmade breads and rolls as well as pastries and other baked goods for sale in the company's own locations and to quality grocery stores, specialty retailers, hotels, and other upscale restaurants. Since 1997, the Burlingame, California, bakery also functions as the Accademia del Fornaio, a training facility or "School for Bakers." In 1998 Il Fornaio (America) Chairman Laurence B. "Larry" Mindel was among select restaurant industry leaders to receive the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association's 1998 Foodservice Operator of the Year and Gold Plate award, the top distinction among Silver Plate Awards, and one of the restaurant industry's highest honors. Mindel, a self-described Italophile, also was the first American and the first person of non-Italian descent to receive the Italian government's Caterina de Medici Medal for excellence in preservation of Italian heritage and culture outside of Italy.

A New Italian Bakery Concept: 1970--86

In 1972 in Barlissina--a small village outside of Milan, Italy--a family of furniture and fixture makers, committed to the goal of preserving the disappearing craft of Italian artisan baking, created the Il Fornaio Baking School. Carlo Veggetti and his family gathered centuries-old recipes from every region in Italy. In this school bakers learned the methods needed to prepare these traditional recipes; furthermore, the school provided the baker-students with the materials necessary for opening their own bakeries under the Il Fornaio name. From this modest beginning, Carlo Veggetti developed his concept of the "neighborhood baker" into what eventually became the largest bakery chain in Italy.

The Il Fornaio bakery concept was introduced to the United States in 1980 when the company acquired exclusive rights in the United States to the Il Fornaio trademark and to certain recipes that remained central to the company's bakery concept. Howard Lester, chairman of Williams-Sonoma Co., discovered the Il Fornaio bakeries during a 1981 business trip to Florence and fell in love with the Old World bakeries. He tracked down Carlo Veggetti, chairman of this largest chain of Italian bakeries, and negotiated an agreement for the rights to Il Fornaio (America) in North America. According to Steve Kaufman's article titled "Innovation Is House Specialty," published in the October 12, 1998 issue of the San Jose Mercury News, Lester opened eight bakery outlets by year-end 1984. The enterprise was not successful, however; Williams-Sonoma sold the company to a group of private investors who hoped to build a wholesale business by having a central bakery supply many additional outlets. When that venture also failed, reporter Kaufman noted that the investors asked Larry Mindel "if he would try his hand at turning the company around." Previously, Mindel had served as president of the restaurant division of Saga Corp. and had created eight successful Italian restaurants. He agreed on the condition that he be allowed to phase out the bakeries gradually and replace them with Italian restaurants having in-store bakeries, thereby introducing a new approach to the restaurant business. Mindel later served as president, chairman of the board, and chief executive officer at Il Fornaio (America) Corporation.

A New Restaurant Concept: 1987-95

The competitive distinction that Mindel had in mind was a new business strategy that, in addition to Il Fornaio's free-standing retail bakeries, focused on the development of full-service restaurants. He envisioned these restaurants and bakeries as showcasing baked goods produced by the company's bakeries and offering a varied menu of premium-quality Italian foods and beverages. This strategy was predicated on the development of an Il Fornaio brand based on the company's authentic Italian heritage. To this end, the company incorporated a retail market into the design of each location so that guests could purchase and bring home Il Fornaio-baked goods, prepared foods, and other branded products. In October 1987 the company opened its first full-service restaurant and bakery. By year-end 1995 the company had opened 11 full-service Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana (restaurants with bakeries) in California and operated five wholesale bakeries.

Il Fornaio's strategy focused on differentiating its restaurants from other restaurants in the Italian food segment by offering creatively prepared, premium-quality Italian cuisine based on authentic regional recipes. The core menu, served at both lunch and dinner, featured a variety of dishes: house-made and imported pasta, poultry and game roasted over a wood-fired rotisserie, meat and fresh fish from a charcoal grill, pizza from a wood-burning oven, soups, salads, and desserts. Native-born Italian chefs developed all of the core menu items. Each month, as part of the company's Festa Regionale 1995 marketing program, these chefs developed special menus based on the local cuisine and culinary style of one of Italy's 20 geographic regions.

Il Fornaio believed that its restaurants, wholesale bakeries, and retail markets worked together to reinforce its image as a provider of authentic Italian food. The wholesale bakeries supplied the same fresh, award-winning breads and other baked goods served at its restaurants to quality grocery stores, specialty retailers, hotels, and other fine restaurants. The retail markets also offered an Il Fornaio-brand Chianti Classico from a Tuscan vineyard originally planted in the 11th century and designated for Il Fornaio's exclusive use. To create a distinctive authentic Italian atmosphere in its restaurants, the company chose designs unique to each location. Design elements--such as terra-cotta or European slate floors, marble bars, mahogany trim, outdoor piazzas, hand-painted ceilings, and fine art--were selected to evoke the charm and elegance of a memorable dining experience in Italy. Il Fornaio's Sacramento restaurant received the grand prize for best new restaurant design worldwide, one of the five grand prizes in hospitality design awarded in 1995 by the national magazine known as Hospitality Design.

To foster a strong corporate culture, Il Fornaio provided extensive training, attractive compensation, and significant opportunities for employee feedback and advancement. In 1995 the company instituted a Partnership Program, which provided equity participation to chefs and restaurant managers. Furthermore, Il Fornaio provided medical, dental, and other benefits to hourly employees; these benefits contributed in part to an employee turnover rate that was below the industry average. At year-end 1995, Il Fornaio posted total revenues of $54.14 million, compared with revenues of $38.51 million at the end of 1992 and with annual revenues of close to $6 million in 1987.

Growth in California and Elsewhere: 1995-97

In 1995 Michael J. Hislop, who had served four years as chairman and chief executive officer of Chevy's Mexican Restaurants and guided that company's expansion from 17 to 63 restaurants, joined Il Fornaio as president and chief operating officer. Mindel, Hislop, and seven other members of senior management continued to develop Il Fornaio restaurants in both existing and new markets and to locate these restaurants at sites in affluent urban and suburban areas. The flexibility of the Il Fornaio concept enabled the company to establish successful hospitality restaurants in a variety of locations, including residential neighborhoods, shopping centers, office buildings, and hotels.

Il Fornaio opened its first out-of-state restaurant and bakery in Portland, Oregon, in 1996 and in January 1997 opened another full-service restaurant and bakery in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the New York, New York Hotel & Casino. In November still another Cucina Italiana e Panetteria was opened in Santa Monica, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The company's fifteenth restaurant and bakery opened in December in the lower downtown ("LoDo") district of Denver, Colorado, three blocks from Coors Field.

Demand for the company's traditional Italian bread and pastries soon exceeded Il Fornaio's capacity for production. In March 1997 the company opened a free-standing 12,000-square-foot wholesale bakery in Burlingame, California. This facility allowed the company to use improved processes that enhanced the quality and consistency of its products while maintaining the Il Fornaio commitment to preservative-free, handmade, authentic Italian breads. This bakery, which replaced two small bakeries and brought about a substantial increase of profits, provided freshly baked goods to all of the company's restaurants and wholesale customers throughout the San Francisco Bay area. Furthermore, to assure the continuing visibility and longevity of its heritage, in May Il Fornaio (America) opened its own Accademia del Fornaio--that is, "School for Bakers"--in this bakery.

Another 1997 highlight was Il Fornaio's successful completion of an initial public offering; in September the company was traded on the Nasdaq National Market under the ticker symbol ILFO. Revenues grew 18.6 percent to $72.12 million in fiscal 1997 from $60.75 million in fiscal 1996. Net income grew to $2.58 million ($0.48 per share diluted) from $1.45 million ($0.32 per share diluted) in 1996: an increase of 77.8 percent. The company shared its success by creating an employee stock-purchase program. In his 1997 Annual Report, Chairman Mindel commented that "a new niche is evolving in the restaurant business, somewhere between 'casual dining,' with an average guest check of $15 and 'fine dining,' where a guest routinely pays in excess of $50. We call this niche 'sophisticated dining.' Our definition of sophisticated dining applies to the handful of restaurant groups that offer great food, professional service, beautiful and worldly wise environments, but with a check average of under $25. After all, fundamentals are the reasons that people dine so often at Il Fornaio." As a matter of fact, "two separate company-sponsored research studies indicate that our customers dine at Il Fornaio an average of sixteen times per year, a visitation frequency normally associated with quick-service restaurants," Mindel emphasized.

Further Expansion: 1998 and Beyond

In the San Jose Mercury News story mentioned above, newswriter Kaufman attributed much of Il Fornaio's success to its management structure, creativity, and attention to details. For instance, chefs and general managers were offered generous stock options and had to buy into the company's vision that profits would follow if quality was "the top priority." One of the ways that Mindel strove to implement the company's mission of providing customers "with the most authentic Italian experience outside of Italy" was to take about ten chefs and managers on an annual two-week trip to Italy to immerse them in that country's food, wine, culture, and lifestyle. Furthermore, once back home the chefs enjoyed much leeway for the preparation of food; every month they alternated the preparation "of supplementary menus customized to the cuisine of one of Italy's 20 regions," Kaufman pointed out. "Executive Chef Maurizio Mazzon reviewed the recipes, photographed the dishes and jotted down the details of the recipes--including instructions for proper pronunciation--for dissemination to the rest of Il Fornaio's chefs," wrote Kaufman.

Il Fornaio opened its sixteenth unit in Seattle, Washington, in October 1998. Located in that city's Pacific Place retail/entertainment complex, the restaurant and bakery shared space with the introduction of a new concept: a fast-serve restaurant called a Risotteria. According to the Il Fornaio Online Magazine, the menu featured six to eight risotto preparations, five to seven pastas, and three to four gnocchi--rotated seasonally along with salads, soups, antipasti, and desserts. Entered from the street level or from the Il Fornaio flagship restaurant situated above, the Risotteria had an open kitchen, no tablecloths, a prominent window for to-go orders, 92 seats for the customers who chose to stay--and everything was priced under $10. In an interview with Robert Klara, who gave news about this complex in the July 1, 1998 issue of Restaurant News, Il Fornaio Vice-President Michael Mindel said that the company had "long believed that there's an opportunity to do something more casual with a lower-price point without going down to fast food."

The Pacific Place's location at the crossroads of business and tourist traffic was the impetus for the idea. "A typical lunch break," Mindel noted, "is 29 minutes. We've long been looking for a way to accommodate people like that." He was quick to make the point that the Risotteria-type eating place would "never be a dominant business for us. We're still a full-service restaurant," he emphasized. But even the Seattle Risotteria had a unique Il Fornaio touch; for instance, Mantovana Risotto--a typical lunch item--consisted of radiochio, sausage, balsamic vinegar, and goat cheese! Il Fornaio opened its seventeenth Cucina Italiana e Panetteria, a 12,000-square-foot unit, in downtown Walnut Creek, California in November 1998. This restaurant and bakery could seat approximately 160 guests. The retail bakery, offering Il Fornaio's signature baked goods, coffees, fresh fruit, and juices, opened at 7:00 a.m. weekdays and at 8:00 a.m. on weekends.

By year-end 1998 Michael J. Hislop had been appointed president and chief executive officer; Larry Mindel continued to be chairman of the board. Sales and profits reached all-time highs, driven by an increase of five percent in same-store sales. In addition, sales at the restaurants increased by 3.3 percent for the fourth quarter of 1998, a percentage that represented the twelfth consecutive quarter of increases in same-store sales. Expansion into new markets also helped drive earnings per share to new heights. Total revenues peaked at $83.12 million for fiscal 1998, compared with $72.12 million for fiscal 1997. Net income for fiscal 1998 increased by 21 percent to $3.1 million versus $2.6 million for the prior year.

Although Il Fornaio became one of the more prominent chains in the upscale dining category, Chairman Mindel and President/CEO Hislop maintained strict standards to keep the company from becoming "chain-like." All but one of the Il Fornaio executive chefs were first-generation Italian and personally created half of the menus. All chefs and general managers were partners in the company. In his October 1998 interview with newswriter Kaufman, Hislop pointed out that the word chain connoted a prototype and implied that the same food was served in each of the company's restaurants. "That's not the case," said Hislop. "Becoming the best Italian restaurant means not only making the best Italian food but also being creative and innovative in each market where we are located."

According to Clifford Carlsen's report in the December 21, 1998 issue of American City Business Journals Inc., during 1999 Il Fornaio planned to open five full-scale restaurants and bakeries, thereby propelling sales to more than $100 million. Chairman Mindel told Carlsen that with expansion set at five or six new restaurant units a year, Il Fornaio could reach $200 million in annual revenues within five years. "We have enough money to finance expansion internally for at least the next 18 to 24 months. And since the [1997] initial public offering we have put in infrastructure and management that can take us to $200 million a year," said Mindel.

Indeed, as the 21st century drew near, Il Fornaio's expansion continued at a rapid pace. All was on track for a May 1999 opening of Il Fornaio Canaletto, the company's 18th restaurant unit--its second in Las Vegas&mdash well as for a number of other restaurants under construction. Furthermore, with a lease in hand for a new 8,000-square-foot restaurant and bakery in Ashwood Restaurant Park, in the upscale "Perimeter" section of Atlanta, Georgia, Il Fornaio would soon have its first II Fornaio Cucina e Panetteria east of the Rockies. According to newswriter Carlsen's story mentioned above, Chairman Mindel predicted that over the next five years about one-fourth of Il Fornaio's locations would be in West Coast markets, with the remainder farther afield. "We think there are 100 markets for Il Fornaio," said the enterprising restaurateur. "There are just a handful of restaurant companies that are on the radar screen of developers today, and we are one of them."

Further Reading:

  • Carlsen, Clifford, "Il Fornaio Sets Table for New Round of Growth," American City Business Journals Inc., December 21, 1998.
  • Galli, Franco, The Il Fornaio Baking Book: Sweet and Savory Recipes from the Italian Kitchen, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993.
    Il Fornaio Online Catalog, http://www.infornaio.com/catalog.html.
  • Kaufman, Steve, "Innovation Is House Specialty," San Jose Mercury News, October 12, 1998.
  • Klara, Robert, "Gnocchi at Noon," Restaurant Business, July 1, 1998, p. 1.
  • "NationsBanc Montgomery Analyst Forecasts Favorable Outlook for Restaurant Industry," PR Newswire, January 29, 1999.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 27. St. James Press, 1999.