Behind a mural blending the Liberty Bell and statues of William Penn and Rocky, Bob Vasaturo brings a bit of Philadelphia to a strip center on West Shore Boulevard in Tampa. In 15 years, his Westshore Pizza and CheeseSteaks has grown from one outlet to 41 stores across the Tampa Bay area. That's about one pizza-cheesesteak shop for every local Domino's Pizza outlet in a franchise network of moms and pops that generated $28 million in sales in three counties in 2008. Now he's started selling franchises beyond the Tampa Bay area and has two stores destined for Columbus, Ohio. Times staff writer Mark Albright set aside his diet to chat with the 43-year-old Philadelphia transplant.
A national chain of Philly cheesesteak and pizza shops based in Tampa? How did this get started?
This is all I've ever wanted to do. I started at 12 washing dishes and learning the business at Bob Delia's Pizza back in Bensalem, Pa. He took me in and at 13 I was one of his best pizza men. It's the same 50 items he taught me: pizza, wings, calzones, pastas and sandwiches. Fifteen years ago I visited a friend stationed at MacDill (Air Force Base) who said Tampa was wide open for something like this. I worked 120-hour weeks at first by myself. I would make a couple pizzas, lock the door to deliver them, then come back and make some more. I later bought out the convenience store that took up the rest of the building I'd been renting for a dining room. The former owner's still here. He's our prep guy.
So what's the secret to an authentic Philly cheesesteak?
It's not the water. It's the bread. Most places use flimsy hot dog buns, but you need really textured bread that can hold it all without falling apart. Initially, I taught a Publix bakery how to make our bread. We built enough demand to support our own bakery in St. Petersburg. Five of my first franchisees were veteran Publix bakers who sold their supermarket stock to come with us. Forget provolone. You need American. Right now we're teaching our stores a new way to liquefy cheese. You cook it. But how is a secret that took years.
How did you first get on people's radar screen?
I started sending free sandwiches and pizza to the morning radio shows. That got us mentions. Now we advertise in the papers and on TV. And we sell fresh-made pizzas by the thousands at the St. Pete Times Forum, Steinbrenner Field and Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater. But even with that volume you just break even at stadiums (because the teams gobble a big slice of profit).
You got headlines for making "killer pizza," when in a recent murder-for-hire case a Clearwater man allegedly agreed to pay an assassin $2,100 plus a $13.06 Westshore Pizza gift card to kill his wife. How did you handle the exposure?
That went national, including on Entertainment Tonight and TMZ. I got calls from reporters all over. But except for the MJ morning radio show, I didn't respond because it could be a touchy subject.
Papa John's and Pizza Hut have huge followings and big ad budgets. How do you fit in?
That five years from now we're a national chain that has made these 800-pound gorillas realize people want something better than cookie-cutter, conveyor-belt pizza. Making a pizza from scratch, throwing the dough, sticking to the right quality ingredients; this is an art.
You built a big local franchise network quickly with a low royalty of a flat $600 a month. New franchisees will be a lot higher at 4.5 percent of sales, which along with a $245,000 startup cost is still in the budget-price range for franchises. How do you deal with the disparity within your own network? And how do you impose uniform appearance standards on local stores that never had them and mostly don't look similar?
We grandfathered in fees for existing franchisees. We are trying to coax them into upgrades and uniformity when it makes sense. Our original store here on West Shore is the model, but the chairs don't have to match.
Will you publish nutritional content like most restaurants chains?
We'll post nutritional information on our Web site. We serve salads, spinach ricotta pizza and turkey clubs. But people don't come here to diet.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.