Cassano Brothers Taking Iconic Pizza Chain to New Heights
At family-owned Cassano’s there’s a healthy slice of Dayton nostalgia served with every one of its signature thin-crust pizzas.
“It’s kind of what Dayton grew up on,” says Vic (Chip) Cassano III, third-generation CEO of the Cassano’s The Pizza King restaurants, just like picking up a pizza after holiday shopping at Rike’s department store, stopping for a bite after a movie at Loew’s Theater downtown, or cruising on a Friday night.
Chip and younger brother Chris, president, are leading a revival of Cassano’s which introduced Dayton to pizza 60 years ago.
Their grandfather Vic Cassano Sr. and their great grandmother Caroline “Mom” Donisi started selling pizza out of the family’s small Kettering grocery at West Schantz Avenue and Patterson Boulevard in 1953.
After a trip to New York City, a friend told Vic that pizza pie “was going to be the next big thing,” Chip says. With a loan from Mom Donisi and her family’s Naples recipe, they sold 400 pizzas the first day. The grocery was soon converted to a pizza parlor and a Dayton icon was born.
Vic Sr. was an innovator and a showman. He went to General Electric to develop the first self-cleaning oven, cut pizzas in squares to make them less messy to eat and was everywhere promoting Cassano’s, even making cameos in some of the chain’s early TV commercials.
“Everybody in town knew my grandfather,” says Chris. Over three decades Cassano’s grew to more than 100 stores, developed new concepts like London Bobby’s Fish & Chips and opened Sandy’s Hamburgers restaurants, an early Illinois-based franchise rival of McDonald’s.
In the mid-1970s, Cassano’s was one of the top four pizza chains in the country, according to the National Restaurant Association. Vic Sr. sold the business to a corporate restaurant operator in 1986, but it struggled with the hometown business and Vic Cassano Jr., Chip and Chris’s father, who like them grew up in the business, bought it back in 1989.
The second time around for the Cassano’s family in the pizza business wasn’t easy. The company struggled with financial mismanagement, bankruptcy reorganization in 1995 and the growing competition from national pizza chains and other fast-food concepts.
Vic Jr., who died in 2010, spent 20 years restoring the Cassano’s brand in Dayton.
Unlike Vic Sr., his son didn’t seek the spotlight, says Ron Campbell, president of U Creative, the Dayton advertising and branding firm that has worked with Cassano’s for several years.
“He told me once that he had the lives of the company’s 500 employees and their families on his shoulders. He had passion for the people and the product, and he put every bit of energy he had into keeping the brand alive and reclaiming the family’s place in this market and he did that.”
Chip and Chris say they see their role as continuing their father’s work and taking Cassano’s to the next level.
Today, Cassano’s has 33 company-owned stores and six franchises in and around the Miami Valley. It employs about 600 and has a growing dough-manufacturing business and an emerging online bake-at-home pizza business to build on. But the brothers aren’t pushing to become the next Papa John’s.“We’re not in a big race to have 50 or 60 stores or anything like that,” says Chip. “If we got to 40 company-owned stores over the next 10 years that would really be about it.”
Chip also says they want to focus on being Dayton’s hometown pizza brand. “I don’t worry about the competition. You have to be who you are. You have to believe in where you’re going and rely on people around you to get things done. This is our town and we‘ve got to be the leader,” he says. “(The competition) has to follow us. We don’t have to follow them.”
With that in mind, Cassano’s with the help of UCreative has focused on re-imaging, remodeling and, in some cases, relocating existing stores to maximize their potential.
For example, Cassano’s is relocating its Brown Street location to a new development adjoining the University of Dayton campus that will be its largest store with seating for 150. And the new look inside the stores taps into customers’ memories with black and white images of Dayton and Cassano’s past.
“What we’re trying to do is bring back some of that nostalgia that has been a canvas for so many memories,” says Campbell. The effort included bringing back The Pizza King name that Cassano’s abandoned years ago and updating the image on packaging.
For many years Cassano’s has taken special orders from Dayton ex-pats who wanted a taste of their favorite pizza. But over the last four years, Cassano’s has formalized that business with Cassano’s Home Edition. An online ordering program that lets customers order a minimum of three of their favorite cheese, pepperoni or deluxe pizzas and have them shipped anywhere in the country.
The Home Edition packaging features the same black and white images in the stores.
“Each pizza is made to order daily. We don’t stockpile them in a freezer,” says Chris. The 12-inch Home Edition pizzas are custom-made each day in the restaurant at Cassano’s offices on East Stroop Road. They’re partially baked and then quick frozen in the company’s adjoining plant and shipped within 48 hours.
The Home Edition sales are particularly strong around the holidays. “We probably do 50 percent of our business between November and December,” says Chris.
Another big growth vehicle is Cassano’s Signature Dough manufacturing supplying made-to-order dough to most food service providers in the Miami Valley and several neighboring states with everything from pizza to bread and rolls.
Cassano’s Stroop Road manufacturing plant produces about 50,000 pounds of dough daily. Only about 20 percent of that is for Cassano’s familiar salt-crust pizza dough. The remaining 80 percent is sold to other food service providers.
Over the last couple years, the company invested in new freezer equipment and automated handling equipment that could increase it dough making capacity to 70,000 pounds daily.
While focusing on the future, the Cassano brothers haven’t forgotten the past. In June they launched a yearlong sweepstakes. With every extra large pizza purchase, customers are entered in a monthly prize drawing. The 12 monthly winners will have a chance to win the grand prize, a new Chevrolet Corvette, which like Cassano’s is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
In June, the company also launched the Cassano’s Cares Foundation in memory of Vic Jr., to contribute to Dayton area organizations.
“It was one of my father’s dreams and we’re fulfilling it,” says Chip. “We want to make it a true community foundation so employees and customers can get involved.”