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Pallino

A fast-casual pioneer

Remember when ordering at the counter and having your meal delivered to your table was the fresh new trend? It seems impossible the idea wasn't always around, but Harry Roberts, founder/chairman of Pallino, pioneered the idea in 1999. Tremendously creative, he has worked with some of the biggest names in retail: JC Penney, Calico Corners, Kitchen Kaboodle, Apple, Starbucks, Chart House Restaurants, Ivar's, and has a consulting firm, Roberts Group Consulting. What was the impetus for Pallino Pastaria?

Harry Roberts (left), David Montanaro (right)

Son of Italian immigrants, Harry forged his own career in retail, eventually meeting and working with Howard Schultz, becoming instrumental in the early days of Starbucks as part of the executive team. He "retired" from Starbucks but didn't stop niggling at the idea behind Starbucks' success: creating a consistent product and experience across large numbers of stores. Using his Italian background, he envisioned a new concept, fast casual. Not casual dining, not fast food. Authentic and delicious Italian food, ordered at a counter, cooked and served quickly in a casual environment. He rolled it out like the Starbucks model with sauces individually packaged, so the taste, texture, and amount were consistent. The first, small, location opened in 1999 at Swedish Hospital. The second location was in Woodinville, the third in Two Union Square, the fourth at University Village. Ultimately there were Pallino Pastarias in Sammamish, Issaquah, Bellevue Square, Bank of America Tower in downtown Seattle, Redmond, and in the Central Terminal at Sea-Tac airport, all in place from 7-10 years.

In 2000-2001, David Montanaro was introduced to Harry through a friend and business colleague. David's background was in tech, working with firms like Apple and Motorola. He became an early investor in Pallino, joined the Board, and is a Principal with the company, helping with growth and restructuring. Eight-to-nine years ago, he committed to spending a year working to resolve the conundrum of why Pallino had a very loyal customer base yet wasn't growing. He brought in a COO, cleaned things up and stabilized the company. "We still couldn't grow it," he says. "Since we weren't generating growth, it didn't make sense to renew the leases." They went into the airport in 2005; even then the Port was curating local concessionaires along with nationally-known companies. Pallino became part of the inaugural group of tenants in the Central Terminal food court. In 2016-17, the lease was up, and the airport was putting out bids to, again, bring in local restaurant concepts. "We competed and were fortunate enought to be selected to return to the Central Terminal for another ten-year term. As we were developing the airport location, we began re-evaluating what Pallino off-airport would look like in the future. We closed our last off-airport location in 2018 and have some ideas in the works for our next chapter. Things have changed since we opened almost 20 years ago. Our spaces used to be 2500-3000 square feet to accommodate seating. A night out used to be dinner and a movie, now it's Uber Eats and Netflix. We needed to reinvent ourselves with a smaller footprint and the same great, consistent food. We're taking the redesigned airport location and seeing how we can use it as a template for the future."

David has become a 'reluctant restaurateur.' "I've successfully handled many large projects working with tens of millions of dollars, lofty goals, and tight deadlines, but I found out quickly the restaurant business is one of the toughest. I knew that intellectually, but reality is a different thing. Yet there are moments of magic when a team member goes out of their way to make a guest happy. Then it's all worth it. We want to make a difference in someone's day and create a sustainable business. With food and hospitality, it's about connecting with people. Branding and messaging is important so people know what to expect. It's like Southwest Airlines: get there early, you get a better seat. It's no frills and no one has a problem with that. But if you're promised a premium experience by another airline and you don't get it, you're furious. We need to ensure that people know our brand is no nonsense, good tasting food done well."

Pallino has a small culinary team that creates their pizza, pasta, salads, hot subs, baked pastas and piadina, an Italian flatbread sandwich that has replaced the panini on their menu. "Ultimately our airport location will be 24 hours and we'll expand our current breakfast offering, as well as introduce a re-worked kids menu. We want to find the right balance of offering enough to be interesting, but not too many choices to be confusing. We're doing some different things like using a steamer that cooks pasta, heating it without water so when sauce is added, you get the full flavor. I think our pastas holds up to any restaurant dish. We never make ingredient choices based on cost. You'll never save your way into prosperity; you have to know where to invest. We want to use the highest quality to produce something we're proud of. My goal is to have someone on a flight say to the person next to them, 'I'm new to Seattle and love Italian food. Where should I go?' with the reply being, 'There are a lot of great Italian restaurants here, but you can get the best pasta and pizza in Seattle right at the airport.' If we can make that happen, growth will follow."

Tomato, chicken, spinach, artichoke pizza

While customization is big now, Pallino wants to lock in their core products. "We want to focus on the flow of things. Plus with pizza, less is more. You start adding extra cheese, meats, or vegetables and cooking times can vary, moisture content is different, and it may not come out at the level we want to provide."

Right now, Pallino wants to be a good partner with the airport. "This is the gateway to our region. We can be the first or last impression for people; our food and the experience we provide should create positive memories."

Pallino
SeaTac Airport Central Terminal
17801 International Blvd.
Seattle, WA 98158
206-444-4796

www.pallino.com

Connie Adams/May 2019


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