Italian fast food seems to be having a moment. Burger King’s new Italian Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich and Wendy’s new Italian sandwiches indicate that we can expect more experimenting with mozzarella, marinara, and garlic at other chains soon. We’re definitely not scoffing at these additions—the more garlic, the better!—but if this trend picks up it’s important not to forget about the original fast food Italian joint, which is very much still kickin’: Fazoli’s.
The first Fazoli’s opened in 1988 in Lexington, Kentucky, seemingly riding the success of the Italian-American fare sold by Olive Garden, which had opened just six years prior. While the menus were similar, the main difference was that Fazoli’s featured a drive-thru. It’s still one of the only chains from which you can pick up a pasta lunch without leaving your car. Today the menu features a combination of pastas, salads, pizzas, sandwiches, breadsticks, and desserts.
Initially Fazoli’s focused on pizza, but quickly pivoted to avoid competing with major pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s. It was Kuni Toyoda who revamped the menu, sourcing more fresh ingredients, making servings larger, and implementing a policy of cooking pasta al dente to make it more stable for takeout. As the 1990s shifted consumer behavior toward greater health consciousness, Toyoda marketed Fazoli’s pasta as the healthier fast food alternative to burgers and fries.
According to QSR Magazine, Fazoli’s biggest expansion started in 2000 when locations started opening in the West Coast, and soon after overseas in the Philippines. The menu expanded to include endless breadsticks for dine-in guests, directly competing with Olive Garden, and the Submarinos(TM) sandwich line, expanding its menu offerings. At its peak in 2004, Fazoli’s had 400 locations across the country. Today there are just over 200 locations nationwide, but this year the chain caught traction once again, recently signing 25 new franchise groups for 75 new locations, QSR Magazine reports.
While other restaurants suffered through the pandemic, Fazoli’s hopped on several trends that helped it thrive. During the summer of 2020, Fazoli’s quickly pivoted to honing its digital presence, and online ordering jumped 410% as a result, QSR reported. In August 2020, Fazoli’s opened a ghost kitchen serving chicken wings in Atlanta and has continued to open its kitchens to other digital-only concepts in the years since.
Most recently, the chain has been mixing up its menu, testing oven-baked subs in select markets and partnering with the Cheesecake Factory Bakery, which has more than tripled Fazoli’s dessert sales in the last six months, Nation’s Restaurant News reports.
Fazoli’s has recently gotten its due in pop culture as well. Our favorite chain restaurant review podcast, Doughboys, paid a visit to Fazoli’s in September with guest comedian Mitra Jouhari; hosts Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger, along with Jouhari, gave the experience “four out of five forks,” entering it into the podcast’s coveted Golden Plate Club. If that’s not reason enough to revisit Fazoli’s, I don’t know what is.