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Groton - Domino's Pizza isn't just about takeout anymore; it's about rising to the occasion.
And the state's second "pizza theater" Domino's - the first in the region - is proving that a little excitement goes a long way in sales.
In fact, the Route 12 store that opened in November in a building previously occupied by The Gathering Spot already is among the Top 10 in sales out of about 5,000 Domino's stores nationwide, according to its owners. It's also tops in Connecticut, they said.
"You can't beat the location," said Nuno Amaral, co-owner with older brother Paul of the Groton Domino's. "It's a busy store."
Amaral figures sales are up about 25 percent from the store's previous location just down the road. The stand-alone building and Domino's new concept of creating a theatrical food experience have made a big difference, he said.
Here, unlike in many previous Domino's incarnations, the pizza making is front and center, not hidden behind a wall. And customers have the option of sitting at about a half dozen tables at the front of the store, unlike earlier Domino's that have been all about take-out and delivery.
But make no mistake: Delivery is still king at the Groton location, accounting for about three-quarters of all sales, Amaral said. In the winter, the franchise's busiest time of year, up to 19 delivery drivers are required on Fridays to satisfy hungry customers who don't feel like going out or cooking at home in the midst of snowy, miserable weather.
"Our busiest times are Fridays and Saturdays, rainy days and snow days," he said.
Amaral is the second generation of a close-knit family of Portuguese descent that has parlayed hard work and dedication into a burgeoning pizza-franchise business. In addition to the Groton store, the Amarals - with the help of two younger brothers, Carlos and Tony - own and operate Domino's franchises in Mystic and Westerly, and they are in negotiations to expand into Branford - possibly Guilford as well, Amaral said.
Paul Amaral of Stonington, the oldest sibling by 10 years over Nuno, led the way in the business by first delivering pizza and later managing a store. Nuno, who lives in Mystic, remembers working at the age of 12, helping his brother with odd jobs.
The Amarals spent much of last summer gutting the former Gathering Place - vacant for the previous dozen years or so - before opening the new Domino's concept store five months ago.
"It was a long summer," Amaral said. "But it's paid off; we can't complain."
At first, sales were up only modestly, but after Pizza Hut closed down only a mile or so away on Poquonnock Road, the numbers rose dramatically.
Amaral figures he employs between 40 and 50 mostly part-time workers at the store, which aims at delivering pizzas within a half hour of an order. Domino's is No. 1 in deliveries nationwide, according to Amaral, and the company now has its eye on becoming the most dominant pizza chain, supplanting Pizza Hut.
The turnaround for Domino's came after a decision by company officials in 2008 to redo its pizza recipe and freshen up its store concept. The "pizza theater" idea, hatched out of those discussions, is incorporated at more than 200 stores in the country, featuring open kitchens and bright colors.
At the Groton store, a decorative sign tells customers to "keep your friends close and your pizza closer."
About 85 percent of Domino's menu was not available a half dozen years ago, according to the company website. And Amaral says more changes are on the way, including a special $3.99 deal that will offer customers a quick two slices of pizza and a drink for those on the go.
"The restaurant business is constantly evolving," Amaral said. "Domino's has been on the rise."
Name: Domino's Pizza theater store
Location: Route 12, Groton
Principals: Nuno and Paul Amaral
Years in business: 17
Employees: 40 to 50
Phone: (860) 449-9135