It’s quite a good business story, too. I’ve always wondered: How did a company with food as bad as Sbarro’s become so ubiquitous? By becoming something of a last-resort for tourists and shoppers:

Sbarro’s biggest asset is its ubiquity. The store has slightly more than 1,000 worldwide locations, mostly in shopping malls—a footprint that lots of chains would kill for. (In a recent SEC filing, the restaurant called itself “the largest shopping mall-focused restaurant concept in the world.”) But malls are in decline. Whereas in my youth the Hawthorn Mall featured the finest in mid-priced chain apparel, its 2011 version is much less vital. On a recent trip there I saw one good-sized store selling peel-and-stick wall decals. Another was offering “Swords up to 70 percent off.” It’s hard to thrive in a consumer oncology ward, and at noon on a recent Saturday, this Sbarro was far less busy than McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or the place selling bourbon chicken…

For the most part, though, appealing to the sort of person who actually likes food has never been Sbarro’s strong point. Blair Chancey, editor of fast-food trade journal QSR magazine, told me that Sbarro’s target demographic is “young, hungry males,” and this might be so. But it also seems as though Sbarro courts the indifferent eater—tourists, children, people who just want a slice and a place to sit while they talk about the amazing pants they saw on sale at The Limited. As far as I could tell, I was the only employed New Yorker dining at the two Manhattan venues I tried. The Sbarro I visited at the Hawthorn Mall food court was crowded with teenagers lured by the promise of free breadstick samples. And the Sbarro in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station (where my slice tasted no better or worse than expected) was busy with commuters, tourists, and children wearing T-shirts advertising the fact that they were on a field trip.

I’ve suffered through some bad Sbarro slices in my day. This almost makes up for it.


Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.