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Steve Heil, owner of Springfield Pasta Co., redesigned the interior, including the addition of commissioned artwork by local artist Susan Sommer-Luarca.
Steve Heil, owner of Springfield Pasta Co., redesigned the interior, including the addition of commissioned artwork by local artist Susan Sommer-Luarca.

Business Spotlight: Pasta Play

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After 25 years of running an Italian cuisine franchise, restaurateur Steve Heil decided to go his own way Jan. 1 and restructured as Springfield Pasta Co.

In splitting from St. Louis-based Pasta House Co., Heil also lost the rights to much of the provided proprietary ingredients such as pre-made meatballs, butterballs and cheesecake.

“We’re no longer getting the Pasta House spice bags,” Heil says. “We make everything from scratch now.”

Chefs at Heil’s restaurant, started in 1985 by his father Dennis Heil under PHC Investment Inc., have recreated the tastes of favorite sauces and dressings – something that’s not necessarily new for them. Steve Heil says on several occasions during the years the food truck didn’t make it down to Springfield in time for lunch or dinner, and his cooks had to buy their own ingredients and recreate the flavors customers expected.

“We’ve been doing it on our own for a while,” Heil adds. “It’s been a hands-off relationship for about 10 years now. They’d come down from St. Louis, check if we’re up to standards, shake hands and leave that day.”

Heil decided not to renew his 25-year contract with Pasta House when it expired at the end of 2010. Under the agreement, Heil had been paying more than 5 percent of the restaurant’s sales – roughly $1.7 million in 2010 – to the franchisor.

Pasta House officials did not return interview requests by press time.

Extreme measures
The restaurant’s next challenge is crafting new, original dishes.

Chefs have added veal vitello – pan-seared veal cuts served in a marsala wine sauce with fresh mushrooms and green olives – and chicken paradise – a lightly breaded grilled breast served in a white wine sauce with garlic, red peppers, broccoli, fresh mushrooms, prosciutto ham and provel cheese.

He says 25 percent of the menu was cut after the changeover to make room for the entrée additions.

Springfield Pasta Co. selected Sysco Food Services of Kansas City Inc. as its full-time food distributor, a move that Heil says has been beneficial, particularly in helping to duplicate the original Pasta House dressing.

“It took about 100 batches over the course of 14 to 15 months to recreate that flavor,” says Chris Hackbarth, Heil’s general manager of 12 years. “Our food distributor helped us break down the ingredients. Near the end of the process, customers [in a taste test] were picking our recipe over the Pasta House dressing, or picking it as the original.”

Steve Dobbs, Sysco’s district sales manager and a 16-year employee, says Heil’s top concern is quality.

“In breaking away from Pasta House, (Heil) said he wanted to serve the same quality food if not better. Our team of chefs began work on several flavor profiles, not only on dressings, but sauces and butter, too,” Dobbs says.

As the main distributor, Sysco provides the restaurant its business review services, which include access to professional chefs and a test kitchen for reverse-engineering flavors and tailoring new tastes to a proprietor’s liking. Sysco also provides “build sheets,” or employee training manuals, to boost consistency when cooking new recipes from scratch.

Dobbs says Sysco’s graphic designers also collaborated with Heil on creating the look of Springfield Pasta Co.’s new menu.

“This has been an extreme measure in terms of the man hours we’ve put in,” Dobbs says. “It’s definitely a relationship we’ve been building.”

Changing landscape
Dennis Heil was one of Pasta House’s first franchisees when he opened the restaurant inside Battlefield Mall. At the time, Springfield’s only movie theater was in the mall and dinner-and-a-movie clients were a Pasta House staple.

The younger Heil bought out his father in 1992.

“Back in the day, we were considered more upscale,” Heil says. “But there weren’t the other options like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Cheddar’s or Macaroni Grill.”

Heil added the South National Avenue site in June 2001 and operated both restaurants for nine months until the mall lease expired.

In 2004, Heil opened a restaurant in Branson but found himself spread too thin and sold the restaurant in 2010.

When the diverging diamond at National Avenue and U.S. Highway 60 was being completed in summer 2010, Heil approached contractors to use their dirt to fill in a large ditch in front of the restaurant. Heil then purchased a third of an acre in a $65,000 agreement with the city of Springfield and the Missouri Department of Transportation, expanding his total lot to 2.7 acres. Heil bought the original lot in 2001 for $1.65 million, not including build-out.

Heil gave the Springfield Pasta Co. site a facelift inside – including commissioned paintings by Springfield artist Susan Sommer-Luarca – and the area surrounding it may be changing soon, too, as Heil is looking to “put on his developer hat.” He’s pursuing a complimentary business tenant and says there is space for a 5,000-square-foot building to the north of Springfield Pasta Co.

“With the economy the way it is people haven’t stopped going out to eat, but they’re looking for value,” he says. “We’ve always been a family restaurant and we’re looking for that family dollar. If we can stay in the top five of their restaurant rotation – the places they frequent – we’ll do well.”[[In-content Ad]]

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