Steve Swindell said his business grew 47 percent from 2013 to 2014, but it was not long ago the Kyle restaurant owner had to go back to the drawing board.
Swindell opened Panhandler’s Pizza in Kyle in 2011, a buffet featuring Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. But he later realized it was not the right business model, he said.
Because Panhandler’s Pizza had made a five-year commitment in its new FM 1626 suite, Swindell could not simply close the Kyle restaurant and leave, he said.
Swindell, who has a background in advertising and marketing, said he conducted a series of focus groups in September 2012, and the concept of Ilario’s Italian Cuisine was born.
“I wanted to find out what concept, what style of restaurant Kyle wanted most,” he said. “Seventy-seven percent of them said Italian. So it was pretty easy.”
Panhandler’s Pizza closed in October 2012 and reopened as Ilario’s Italian Cuisine the next month.
But the move was not without its setbacks, Swindell said. He had never run a full-service restaurant before, and there was a six-month learning curve during which he figured out the best ways to staff his restaurant and experimented with his menu to meet the needs of his customers.
As it went through its first-year trials, Swindell said the restaurant would receive complaints about its service. But after the owner became more selective about the restaurant’s servers, hosts and managers and maintained a policy of projecting joyfulness—a nod to the Italian name of the restaurant—its customer service became a strong suit, he said.
“Now our service gets more accolades even than our food does,” Swindell said. “It has completely reversed itself in the last year, year and a half.”
The Ilario’s menu includes Italian pasta dishes and entrees, soups and salads, and New York–style pizza. Its menu also features options for children; Italian desserts, such as tiramisu and gelato; and a selection of beer and wine.
The restaurant’s pasta-your-way menu—which offers customers a chance to customize their dish by selecting their favorite pasta, meats, vegetables and sauce—has become popular recently, Swindell said.
Its New York–style pizza was first offered as a Throwback Thursday special in the early phase of the business but now makes up nearly 50 percent of sales, he said.
Ilario’s began catering in early 2015. As of late February, Ilario’s had catered five events. Swindell said his customers drove the business toward catering, and he is optimistic it will make his business even more viable.
As for the restaurant’s focus in 2015, Swindell said he remains intent on spreading the word among Kyle-area residents about Ilario’s. Swindell said an Ilario’s waitress who served five tables one night said four of them were first-time customers.
“With the business we’re doing to still have that many new bodies coming in—who, for the most part, I think are leaving feeling good about the place—it’s almost scary,” he said.