How Cicis Pulled Itself Out Of Restaurant Ruin

Cicis Pizza, a restaurant on its way to restaurant ruin in the not-too-distant past, has found a way not only to survive but thrive. Declining sales and changing dining habits pulled it all the way down into bankruptcy in 2021, but it miraculously rose like a phoenix from the ashes. A restaurant that once seemed on the brink of death now stands as a bold testament to the power of innovation and adaptability in the change-or-die restaurant landscape. CiCi's reinvented itself with wise innovations and marketing strategies, and the transformation was nothing short of extraordinary.

We are impressed with all the little changes that have added up to big success for the pizza buffet chain. Cicis' Endless Pizzabilities campaign has added everything from new menu items to a new mascot and larger game rooms. With all these recent changes has come a new image. Luckily, it's still cheap. However, not only is Cicis beginning to reach new demographics with different restaurant habits, but it's also become an entertainment destination. Join us as we reveal all the key ingredients Cicis used to reinvent itself and make an astonishing comeback. We can't wait to see what's next.

Cicis has a history of being innovative

We've watched through the years as Cicis Pizza has made numerous positive changes. While some things at Cicis remain the same, it hasn't remained stagnant regarding modern trends and ways to become more profitable.

For example, we have fond memories of when Cici's offered a tray so you didn't have to balance your soup, salad, pizza, and drink in your hands. While we miss them, there are so many reasons it was profitable to toss them, from fewer dishes to wash to preventing people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs from grabbing too much food initially. While Cicis had traditionally only offered a buffet, we were impressed in 2007 to see a Buffet on the Go menu and a variety of wings offered as an upsell item. Wings had become trendy, and they were easy to add to the menu because it was possible to bake them with pizzas and not have to buy new equipment.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant worked on strategies to get in more lunchtime and millennial diners who preferred carryout and delivery options. It first started testing digital ordering for carryout in 2011 and eventually added delivery services.

Cicis rebranded after declaring bankruptcy in 2021

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic did for restaurants was to push them into a position to change or die. Buffets were especially vulnerable as people stopped eating out as much. Plus, customers were more skeptical of buffets than other restaurant environments. So, it's no surprise that Cicis Pizza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2021. When D&G investors bought it, Cicis was $82 million in debt. However, investors saw Cicis as the pizza buffet jewel it is. The chain simply needed to overcome some hurdles — mainly depending on customers eating inside the restaurant while customers have started to prefer digital ordering, carryout, and delivery.

Cicis is a glowing example of a buffet that made innovations that have made it stronger in the changing restaurant dining landscape. In 2022, the company began rebranding itself with its new Endless Pizzabilities Campaign. The campaign included the creation of a new mascot to emphasize the brand's story. Some of the many changes the chain made included digitalization and a drive to increase carryout and delivery sales. Hoppe says the company is "putting innovation at the forefront of the brand."

Cicis has new leadership

When Cicis Pizza reemerged from bankruptcy, it barely skipped a beat. However, it had big plans. To help enact these big plans was new leadership on the corporate level. Luckily for customers who have been eating pizzas at the restaurant for years, the new president and COO, Jeff Hetsel, is a franchise owner of two locations. So, he's far from being an outsider. He says, "For more than 35 years, Cicis has held a special place in the hearts, minds, and appetites of many Americans and our focus is to ensure our guests keep that connection to our brand for many years to come" (via PR Newswire).

Hetsel wasn't the only new person to leadership within the chain in 2022. To help customers continue to connect with the brand, Craig Richard moved up to become the vice president of operations, and David Bauer became the Franchise Business Director. Stephanie Hoppe was the new Chief Marketing Officer, so all the new marketing ideas have fallen to her to implement.

Some locations have secret menus

In March 2022, some Cicis Pizza locations got secret menus. If you're a regular visitor to the chain's pizza buffets, you've probably long realized that you can ask the pizza bakers to make any normal buffet pizza that you don't see on the buffet. So, if your favorite pizza is macaroni and cheese or barbecue chicken and it's not out on the buffet, you can always wait for them to bake it for you. In fact, in 2018, the "secret menu" included getting a custom Personal Pizza in your favorite flavor, just for the asking. However, you didn't have to order from among the pizzas you'd typically see on the buffet. You can order any four-ingredient combination for your Personal Pizza based on all the available ingredients.

In 2022, the company took this secret menu idea a step further by allowing customers to scan a QR code to take them to a site where they can make a digital Personal Pizza order. Previously, the secret menu was accessible by asking, and we even remember our local restaurant once having a pencil and paper version to check off the ingredients we wanted. However, this new digital version is even easier and doesn't require getting a busy employee's attention to make a highly customized order. It's an introvert's pizza buffet dream come true.

It's done more carryout business

Traditionally, when people have thought of Cicis Pizza, they've thought of cheap buffet pizza rather than cheap carryout or delivery pizza. In fact, people visiting the buffet made up a whopping 86% of Cicis' sales before the COVID-19 pandemic. As you can imagine, this business model put the restaurant on thin ice when people stopped visiting buffets, and some locations had to shut down indoor dining options during the pandemic's height. Thus, the company had to shift strategies.

Cici's managed to get more people to come in for carryout, curbside pickup, and delivery options. With all these extra options, the chain experienced a 30% growth in carryout pizza sales in 2021.

With more customers coming in for non-buffet pizza, the company's 2022 rebrand involved changing to a new focus on delivery and carryout instead of just the buffet. After all, non-buffet pizza sales have increased 300% faster than buffet pizza sales since 2014. So, it makes sense to rethink carryout and delivery.

It's looking to expand

If it seems like you've seen fewer Cicis Pizza locations recently, you're correct. However, the chain is hoping to expand in the future.

At the time that Cicis declared bankruptcy in 2021, it had half the number of restaurants than it had just 10 years earlier. The number had dwindled to a mere 318 locations across 26 states. Unfortunately, that number would shrink to only 279 locations in 23 states by 2023.

Cicis is looking for safe bets for its future expansions. So, it's targeting areas where Cicis is already successful and areas near distribution centers. At least for the time being, the number of locations will most likely be increasing in cities and states where Cicis is already a success, like Houston, Austin, Georgia, and Florida. Cicis will also expand in cities with distribution centers, like Atlanta, and cities with both characteristics, like Dallas. So, the chain is actively looking for new franchise owners and investors.

It's adding new menu options and limited-time offers

The menu at Cicis has remained mostly the same for years except for when it added wings in 2007. When you walk into the buffet, you know to look for favorites like pasta, soup, salad, Macaroni and Cheese, BBQ Chicken, and desserts. So, seeing something new can be unexpectedly thrilling.

Some of the first new menu items showed up in 2021 — Jalapeño Poppers and Pepperoni Poppers, with Buffalo Chicken Poppers showing up in 2022. Deep-dish pizzas found their way back to the menu in 2022. The restaurant has brought back stuffed crust pizza, which it initially offered in 2015. In 2023, the restaurant also went big with the introduction of the Piezilla pizza, a 64-slice, 28-inch pizza that had previously been available for Pizza Challenge contests. Beware; the Piezilla may be too big to fit in some cars.

Since the rebrand, the chain has also decided to jump on the limited-time offer (LTO) bandwagon. Some you may have seen include $4.99 adult buffets, Mike's Hot Honey Pepperoni Pizzas, and Mike's Hot Honey Wings. And if you're a potato and bacon lover, you may have gotten excited to see the Tots N' Bacon Pizza in October 2023. Hopefully, some of the better LTOs will become permanent menu items instead of distant memories we never see again.

Cicis brought back the Pizza Challenge

When Cicis Pizza rebranded itself, it lost no time bringing back the Pizza Challenge. The Pizza Challenge was initially a local franchise event and required a team of two people who were randomly chosen among applicants. The team had to completely consume a 28-inch pizza and two large drinks (without ice) in an hour. Winners couldn't stand up from the table and couldn't throw up. The prizes depended on the location. Some locations offered a $300 cash prize and monthly free pizza for a year (if you wanted to eat Cicis pizza again after such an endeavor). However, Cicis says the new challenge is one that customers can even take home with them, so we're not quite sure how it's supposed to work or if prizes are still involved.

In case you hadn't gathered, a 28-inch pizza is enormous. It also requires a whopping four pounds of dough. Cicis cuts these pizzas into 64 slices for parties and says it is enough to feed 15 people. The entire pizza is 11,840 to 17,600 calories. A large fountain drink can be as much as 550 calories each. If challengers split the pizza and drinks evenly and "win" the challenge, they will have consumed 6,195 to 9,075 calories each — queue stomach ache.

It's launched a new Endless Pizzabilities campaign

Cicis Pizza started its Endless Pizzabilities campaign in 2022. In an interview with Pizza Marketplace, Chief Marketing Operator, Stephanie Hoppe said, "The priority of this new campaign was to tell the brand story rather than advertise discounts or other promotional levers. The focus is on engaging our former, current, and future guests in a fun and creative way that highlights the value and the experiences we offer." The company wanted to tap into good memories customers have of eating at Cicis throughout their lives, hitting on the nostalgia factor. However, it also tried to capture the "endless fun" and "magically wonderful restaurant experience" possible at Cicis through its new mascot.

According to Franchising, within the first month of the campaign, sales increased 15%. By the end of its first year, the Endless Pizzabilities campaign had helped Cicis make 31% more sales than the previous year.

Cicis has a new steampunk mascot: C.C. Pazzini

In a time when many food chains have redesigned their buildings into boring boxes and have dumped their fun mascots, Cicis Pizza has embraced whimsy with a brand-new mascot. With the creation of C.C. Pazzini, the chain has tried to create a fantastical backstory for itself while bringing a little contrived magic to the real magic it hopes customers experience while eating there.

The origin story for C.C. Pazzini starts in Little Italy, where a pizzeria owner named Papa Pazzini found a baby in a basket on his doorstep. The child never grew taller than four inches, but he was able to help his papa create new pizzas in his shop. As a man with a head for invention, C.C. Pazzini came up with the idea of the pizza buffet that came to be known as Cicis.

New advertising for the chain features tiny C.C. Pazzini flying through the restaurant in another of his inventions — a steampunk-style flying bicycle. Being so tiny, kids are obsessed with him. C.C. Pazzini wears a steampunk costume, complete with a top hat, aviator glasses, pocket watches, waistcoat vest, trench coat, boots, and fancy walking stick. So, that aesthetic appeals to other demographics. Another thing? He speaks in rhyme with a voice like Matt Berry. Come to think of it, he looks like Matt Berry, too.

Cicis now does more digital advertising

Cicis Pizza wants to appeal to as many demographics as possible, so it has branched out into doing more digital advertising. After all, younger generations are getting more of their entertainment from social media videos and streaming services than from network television and radio. Thus, a switch to digital advertising was a must.

Cicis has been doing digital ads for a while. However, the new strategy has been one of inundating social media airwaves with Cicis Pizza and C.C. Pazzini. The big difference is that the marketing team started focusing beyond Meta-owned social media like Facebook and Instagram and onto platforms like TikTok, where younger potential customers spend their time watching interesting, engaging videos that go beyond regular advertisements.

In its first month, the new marketing campaign led to 322 million social media video watches and 1.6 million clicks on the restaurant's website. The chain's marketing gurus were able to track these watches and clicks to 550,000 visits to the restaurants. Furthermore, these restaurants saw a 25% in sales increases. So, the advertising was wildly effective.

It has opened larger game rooms

When you think of Cicis Pizza's game rooms, you tend to think of a claustrophobic little space with a few video games and a claw machine. It's traditionally been a fun little stop-in for kids, but it's never been part of the main attraction — until now. Eat This, Not That! quotes the president of the company, Jeff Hetsel, as saying, "Video games are a big part of our deal now." No longer are they a small side attraction, but they're designed to be a big source of income for the company.

Indeed, the new game space is more than a tiny, forgotten room at the back of the restaurant. Now, it's a spacious room, and there are chances to earn prizes. Franchisees opening new locations or seeking to expand their existing game room have the option of a 600-square-foot game room or one that's 1,000 or more square feet.

The idea is to turn the restaurant into a destination where families and friends stay after they're finished eating to play games as a part of their time out together. Birthday parties also include credits for each attendee to play games. So, a birthday party at Cicis has become ever more attractive. It's probably not a big stretch to imagine a future where you think of the games at Cicis as much as the pizza like you do at pizza places like Incredible Pizza and Pizza Ranch.

It has experienced sales increases

Bankruptcy looks good in some restaurants, especially when new blood brings innovative ideas. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cicis Pizza was starting to average a 2.4% sales decrease each year. However, despite having 4% fewer locations between 2020 and 2022, Cici's increased its sales by 30% between 2021 and 2022. This increase is all thanks to the new marketing plans the company implemented after bankruptcy. Instead of declining as it had been for years, the chain suddenly climbed in sales again. The changes all added up in the end to something amazing.

While the pizza and small game room at Cici's once got kids begging their parents for a night out at Cici's, the game room only ever contributed about 1% to the overall sales for the store. Taking the idea of turning Cicis into a game destination worked in favor of the chain in a big way. Now, with the game rooms becoming larger and providing more of a Dave and Buster's experience, they're bringing in 10% to 20% of a location's revenue.

As you can see, these changes have culminated in some fantastic improvements for the chain. While the changes are making Cicis more profitable, they're keeping customers happy, too.