The Death of a Mallrat: Sbarro Files For Bankruptcy

There’s a special, choked corner on the left side of my heart for Sbarro pizza. Because for Sbarro, stuffed crust just wasn’t far enough. They had whole stuffed pizza. Pizza…stuffed inside of pizza. Like an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a question brushed with delicious garlic butter. While other brands were jabbering on about where to put more cheese, Sbarro gave me more of what I really wanted and that’s crust. Wonderful, chewy, greasy, carb-loaded crust. That’s why the highlight of every elementary school field trip (which always included a stop for lunch at the MetroCenter Mall food court) was a slice or two of stuffed pepperoni pizza. Maybe a garlic knot.

Today, that Sbarro is closed and the MetroCenter Mall is barely clinging to life. It appears this is not an isolated incident.

As online shopping services have proliferated and improved, consumers are choosing not to fight the hassle of brick-and-mortar megalapolases packed with roving bands of feral, bored teenagers. Apparently, there aren’t enough sixth grade field trips to make up the difference. With their franchises almost exclusively tied to food court locations, Sbarro announced today it will enter bankruptcy, potentially leaving empty marinara-stained spaces around the world and forcing busloads of poor, hungry elementary school students to forage for food in the streets.

It’s shocking to me that company that showed such innovation in its food (STUFFED PIZZA, for crying out loud. It might be the second most important food innovation of my generation right behind the McGriddles bun) showed almost no such vision in its market presence past malls and airports.

“What’s more certain than Americans going to the mall? Why would we ever think about investing in any development past that? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a tee time with the CEO of Polaroid. Photography development! Now THAT’S a rock solid industry.”

It’s a passenger seat mentality that rarely serves any business well. The American Shopping Mall just had a heart attack at the wheel with Sbarro strapped into the back, screaming and helpless. No amount of marketing, branding, pricing or promotional innovation is going to help even a well-run franchise that’s stuck in a shopping mall in decline, and that’s a sizeable portion of the Sbarro business model.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the food court, Truett Cathey was taking his delicious, frustratingly Sabbath-compliant chicken sandwich on the road and expanded. Though built on much the same shopping mall niche as Sbarro’s, Chic-Fil-A began opening free standing franchises in 1986 and such stores now account for the vast majority of the brand’s current growth. In 2009, during the heart of the recession, Chic-Fil-A increased revenue by almost 9 percent with over $3 billion in sales and planned to open 70 new stores in 2010, predominantly free-standing franchises.

This doesn’t mean that Chic-Fil-A necessarily experienced some honey mustard-fueled clairvoyance as to the coming demise of the American shopping mall in the mid-80s. But, they did take the initiative to break out of their food court comfort zone. They got out of the passenger seat and learned how to drive.

So long, Sbarro. I wish you luck. In the words of a generation of suburban mothers, I wished you’d spent less time slacking around that mall with your loser friends. Maybe you would’ve made something of yourself, or at least learned how to drive.

Leave me a slice of stuffed pepperoni in your corporate will. We’ll always have MetroCenter, at least figuratively.