At each of Francesca’s Restaurants Inc.’s locations, employees strive to remember customers’ names and preferences. That way, the restaurant has the feel of a private club, President Jeffery I. Cohen says.
“People feel special when they come to our restaurants,” he says. “It’s one of the rare places where a busser and a runner get a big hug and kiss from a soccer mom.”
Based in Chicago, Francesca’s Restaurants has 24 restaurants in Illinois, Arizona, California, North Carolina and Wisconsin that specialize in freshly made Italian trattoria food. Founders Scott Harris, Terry Alexander and Michael Noone started the company in 1992.
Previously, Alexander and Noone were Chicago bartenders who were saving to open their own restaurant. With the help of Harris, the two realized their dream by opening an Italian trattoria down the street from Wrigley Field in Chicago in a space that was once occupied by a candy shop.
When the restaurant opened, it was named “Mia Francesca” after Harris’ wife Francesca, who managed the front door. While Alexander and Noone served as bartenders, Harris managed the kitchen, which changed its menu daily.
Quickly, Cohen says, Mia Francesca became popular and earned rave reviews, and going by on a weeknight and finding a 2 1/2-hour wait or longer was the norm. “No one was doing that type of cooking,” Cohen says, noting that the restaurant became known for offering fresh pasta and seafood.
Today, each of its restaurants strives to be a “microcosm” of the neighborhoods they are located in, Cohen says. For example, the company’s Francesca’s on 95th restaurant in Oak Lawn, Ill., draws its name from the city’s main thoroughfare and features a classically designed bar, lofty ceilings and photographs of rural Italian life.
This year, the company celebrated its 20th anniversary and still has many employees who have been with it since the start, Cohen says. “We have dishwashers who are now chefs,” he says. “It’s really a family oriented business and we provided many tremendous opportunities’ for advancement for our dedicated staff.”
Striving for Excellence
A longtime friend of Harris, Cohen originally joined Francesca’s Rest¬aurants in 1996. After two years, he left to run several high-end private clubs and resorts around the United States, first as an executive chef, then chief operating officer.
One day in 2009, Scott Harris saw on Facebook that Cohen was in San Diego at a conference. Harris picked up the phone immediately and called Cohen, asking him if he was interested in returning to Francesca’s to oversee its West Coast expansion.
He notes that he has enjoyed working with Harris, who he has known for 20 years. “He’s creative, passionate and visionary,” Cohen says.
Cohen credits the longevity of Francesca’s Restaurants to its quality service, as well as its ability to offer great meals for reasonable prices. Additionally, Cohen says Francesca’s Restaurant is known for its fish preparation, seafood, large gluten-free menu options and the ability to custom create special orders for guests.
The company’s vendors also have played an important part, including Greco and Sons, which specializes in Italian food. “We’ve been with them for over 20 years [and] we get the best quality and service from them,” Cohen raves.
He also praises the work of Viti Insurance. “[They have] been an amazing partner with us since day one 20 years ago,” Cohen says, noting that the firm has a personable nature.
Ahead of the Curve
Recently, Francesca’s Restaurants has coped with challenges like increasing food costs, Cohen says. To adjust, it has gradually passed the price increases on its menu in small increments, Cohen says. “We’re not shocking them with large price increases,” he says. Francesca’s also changes its core menu, which is about 70 percent of the items every two weeks and allows the flexibility to make menu price adjustments.
Additionally, as its customers get younger, the company strives to make its restaurants more innovative by adding new menu items, including Saba-glazed ribs served with Italian slaw, crispy fried penne, roasted butternut squash and goat cheese fondue, stuffed arrancini with soft egg and parmesan cream.
Cohen adds that the future of Francesca’s Restaurants will be based on its continued ability to find sustainable products and maintain its own flexibility, which is especially important when attempting to reach out to younger demographics.
“We’re innovating ourselves constantly,” he asserts. “We are trying to stay ahead of the curve so we can be timeless for all of our customers.”