Covelli: Dad's 4 standards foundation of 54-year business

By Ed Runyan


Covelli Enterprises owner and CEO Sam Covelli says four standards that his father, Albert Covelli, established in 1959, when he bought the company’s first McDonald’s restaurant, are still true today.

Sam Covelli told the Warren Rotary Club on Wednesday those standards have stayed with the company for 54 years.

“This is kind of our bible in our business. It’s why we’ve continued to grow and what hopefully will keep it going like it is,” he said. Covelli was the guest speaker.

The first standard is to have “great people, we know that. But we want nice people, people that when you walk into our restaurants, they treat you good. They treat you as customers, and they treat you like you’re our boss. That’s the No. 1 most important thing.”

Second, “We want to serve, obviously, the best quality of food. No short cuts, that the customer knows is special.”

Third is great value.

“You may have a $6 item that you love, and you think that’s worth $8, and you don’t mind paying $6,” he said.

“Fourth one is you better have the cleanest damned restaurant in town. I’m crazy about it. Our people are crazy about it, and I’d like you to come into our kitchens, our back rooms, and they better be as clean as our dining rooms, and that is something we will always live by.”

Covelli said if a restaurant doesn’t value those four things, “you’re not going to have a long-term restaurant.”

He said it may sound easy to employ those four standards, “but it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of follow-up.”

Covelli Enterprises employs 25,000 people, 2,000 of them in the Mahoning Valley, in its Panera Bread, O’Charley’s and Dairy Queen restaurants and its corporate offices in Warren.

The company is the largest franchisee of Panera Bread and O’Charley’s restaurants in the United States and is the fourth-largest restaurant franchisee in the U.S.

The company was the largest McDonald’s franchisee in the country before getting out of that business, in part because Covelli was “running out of territory” to grow.

“And we’re a growth-mode kind of company, and even though we were the largest in the country, we wanted to grow in other areas, so we started realizing a segment of the population was looking for an alternative to fast food.”

The company noticed St. Louis Bread in St. Louis and “fell in love with the concept.”

In time, that concept became Panera Bread, which opened its first store in Boardman and soon will open its 250th store, also in Boardman.

The company also is in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus and West Virginia. Six years ago, Covelli Enterprises purchased 14 stores in the West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale, Fla., market and doubled its volume using the “same standards, the same formula,” as in the past, then opened 13 more stores.

Three years ago, the company bought the 19-store Columbus market, turned that into 32 with eight more under construction. Sam Covelli’s son, Albert, handles most of the operations there.

Among the Columbus stores is the largest one in the United States, and it’s on the campus of Ohio State University.

The company also now has the rights to the Toronto, Windsor and Niagara Falls markets in Canada.

“I won’t live long enough to develop Canada,” he said. “It’s exciting times.”

In a question-and-answer period, a Rotary Club member asked Covelli what he does for fun.

“I used to love golf, and I quit for six years now,” he said. “I have fun traveling to the markets, looking for sites and working with the people and traveling to the stores. We’ve got so many exciting things going, and to me, that’s fun. Every day, I just can’t wait.”

When he’s away from work, he enjoys traveling with his wife, Caryn, and his children. He nodded to his wife in the audience.

“Right Caryn?”

She agreed, but added, “But really, his fun is going to work.”

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