A Landmark Disappears

March 30, 2012 at 1:20pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

Valentino’s and WRK want to demolish the original Valentino’s building and replace it with a mixed-use development. Valentino’s will be part of the replacement project, but we all know it won’t be the same. Perhaps it will be better.

I’m skeptical.

Valentino’s has been in a funk for years. Sure they still have many locations, but if quality rather than quantity is the indicator of success, Val’s doesn’t have it. They serve low-quality, low-cost slop directly out of the freezer at ridiculously inflated prices. They aren’t alone in that, of course. But they could do better.

One example: it shocks the heck out of me that Valentino’s can only manage to keep two of their buffets open in Lincoln. This is the heart of Valentino’s country, and yet there are half as many Val’s buffets today as there were 15 years ago. Why? I argue that it’s because Lincoln’s dining scene has matured significantly over the past two decades, while Val’s remains mired in the past. Indeed, nostalgia is one of the most important reasons Val’s is able to keep its doors open at all. Valentino’s as a brand is built upon what used to be, not what currently is. That can only last so long before it crumbles.

Which brings me back to this new development at 35th and Holdrege. The current Valentino’s building is no doubt outdated and ready to go. But that building is an important part of the Valentino’s brand. Take it away, and you take away a tremendous chunk of the nostalgia that breathes life into the chain. Without that link to history, Valentino’s is little more than an expensive hybrid of Fazoli’s and Cici’s. Will people continue to pay the “Valentino’s tax” as the history fades away?

I am a Valentino’s customer. I grew up on their pizza and I enjoy it from time to time. (Try jalapeno and cream cheese. Mmm.) I want them to be a success. But over these past several years I’ve had my doubts, and my most recent trip to the nearly-empty “Grand Italian Buffet” in Grand Island on Saturday evening left me shaking my head. Surely they can do better than where they are now.

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Mr. T March 30, 2012 at 2:08pm

<i>But over these past several years I

George March 30, 2012 at 2:43pm

We actually tried to eat there this week.  Husband took his lunch break at 11 p.m.  The sign said “immediate seating”, we sat down and I asked “Will they be bringing out the pizza soon?” as the only thing they had ready for their customers was the salad.  Her response was “Oh, we make pizzas to order.  What kind do you want?”  Apparently, we could order the pizza, wait the 20 minutes for it to bake and then we could eat it, even though we came for the buffet and were on a time schedule due to it being a lunch break…  We thanked her and told her we would need to eat elsewhere as we didn’t have time for them to make the pizza/pasta/desert. (We went to the Mongolian Grill on 66th, they had all their food ready for us!)

Val’s buffet cost is way off in proportion to their quality, which is why we commonly don’t go to eat dinner their.  It’s the same reason we don’t eat at Golden Corral for dinner (we do go for breakfast though, because their breakfast rocks).

Fletch March 30, 2012 at 2:59pm

It’s not relatively expensive, it’s VERY expensive. It’s a premium price for a non-premium pizza.

I hate to admit it, but I like buffets. I think the demise of some of the Val’s buffets in Lincoln was more due to the expansive Grand Italian Buffet built at 70th and Van Dorn. The other locations didn’t have the room to make that happen, and they didn’t want to dilute the grand buffet, so they just shut down the others. I think it’s too bad - the one downtown was perfect. They have a good salad bar, and the buffet of mostly just pizza, pasta, and breadsticks worked. That location was busy. Never made sense to get rid of it.

Same at 27th and Highway 2. You had to wait awhile for a table, and the buffet was just fine. They should have focused on what they did best and just had the one “Grand” buffet, or done none at all.

Their to-go locations made some sense at the time, and their value meals were once a hell of a deal. Today, they are not so much. My son likes the one at the SouthPointe food court, but it pisses me off to pay more than $5 for a kid to eat (they don’t have a kid’s meal), and that when he orders pasta, there’s about a nickel’s worth of noodles. RIP OFF. He always wants more (he’s only 6), but I won’t pay for 2 meals. To have a banner hanging above the counter touting them as the best deal in town is an insult.

The to-go locations did, in my opinion, further dilute the brand. It’s the same thing that killed Krispy Kreme. Opening a KK was an event. Going there could be a treat. However, when you can also get a KK doughnut in most grocery stores and convenience stores, why bother visiting the mothership?

I’m not a huge fan of Val’s pizza, but it’s a nice departure once in a while. I just don’t see what the big fuss is, and I won’t overpay for it.

Brian Fitzgerald March 30, 2012 at 3:01pm

One of the first calls that the new UNL basketball coach took during his Sports Nightly appearance early this week asked him if he had tried Valentinos. I’m embarrassed for us when I hear that question. It’d be one thing if it were just another pizza in town, but it is part of our identity. I tend to wear that identity like the t-shirt I only put on when its cold enough to throw a jacket on over it. I don’t want to see them gone, but I do wish that they would re-focus themselves on turning their product into something we can all be proud of again.

Fletch March 30, 2012 at 3:18pm

Ditto for Runza.

Brian March 30, 2012 at 3:26pm

Runza has uniqueness going for it at least. The only thing I can compare a Runza to is the Runzas I remember. I can’t consider Val’s without thinking that Yia Yia’s or nearly any other pizza place in town would sure taste a whole lot better.

Steve March 30, 2012 at 3:39pm

Val’s has the best blue cheese dressing in town.  Unfortunately, that’s the best thing I can say about them.

Oh, and their bacon cheeseburger pizza is good.  Not great, but good.

Mr. Wilson March 30, 2012 at 3:40pm

Part of the problem is calling Valentino’s pizza “pizza”. It only barely meets the criteria (dough, sauce, cheese). Judging Val’s against “truer” pizzas is almost always going to leave a person disappointed. The Missus’s family, originally from New York, wasn’t able to enjoy Val’s until they stopped classifying it as pizza and started identifying it as ... well ... Val’s.

Mr. Wilson March 30, 2012 at 3:47pm

The alternative is what I saw in GI: sad, heat-lamped-to-death slices waiting for one of the few customers to claim them. But you’re right, people generally don’t go to a buffet in order to wait 20 minutes for the main attraction.

There could be a market for some variation on that, though. People wait for custom omelettes, for example. And of course Mongolian grills are hugely popular. Would people dig a pizza restaurant at which you could craft your own mini pies? Hmm…

Mr. Wilson March 30, 2012 at 4:11pm

I disagree about Runza. After their pathetic “oven stuff’d” experiment, it seems like they’ve started to re-find themselves. They don’t do everything right, but their footing is stronger than Val’s.

Now Amigo’s, on the other hand. Talk about a case study in screwing up a good thing.

foxspit March 30, 2012 at 4:20pm

Completely agree about the loss of identity by demolishing the only connection left to what used to be a great brand.

I also agree about the blue cheese dressing. Ah-mah-zing.

It’s been hard to watch this spiral, but unless they are reinventing themselves at 35th and Holdrege, then I’m afraid it’s over for me. I’ll still buy a slice now and then at the food court, but that will be it.

Personally, I think they need to keep the old building. Raze the rest of it, but keep the original portion.

foxspit March 30, 2012 at 4:21pm

Maybe make the original building a bar/museum to themselves.

Steve Smith March 30, 2012 at 4:25pm

Brent, you hit this one right on the screws. In recent years I’ve come to see Val’s as the Italian version of Arturo’s (hey, remember Arturo’s?) And like Runza, Val’s will always have that Proustian effect that makes Nebraskans think of football Saturdays when they catch a whiff. The original location is one of those joints that feels like 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005 all at the same time—you really feel like you’re in Lincoln’s Lincoln when you’re in there. Lose that nostalgia, and what you’re left with is a middling product at premium prices.

Val’s might be able to use the move into a new building as an opportunity to also shake up their menu—do a Domino’s kind of NEW! IMPROVED! rebranding, perhaps. But so much of their brand is tied up in the past (and so much of their clientele, I’d imagine, is change-averse) that it won’t be easy to make that break. They’re in a pretty tough spot.

Mr. Wilson March 30, 2012 at 4:44pm

They could call it ... Valentina Land!

Er, wait…

George March 30, 2012 at 4:46pm

I have to agree on Runza and Amigos. Both of these places have gone down hill from where it was when I was a kid.  I flat out won’t eat at Amigo’s anymore.  Taco Inn has the best taco’s/enchiladas in town as far as I’m concerned.  Runza might be original, but their quality has gone way down.  Another place that I rarely eat at.

James March 30, 2012 at 5:23pm

I was amazed when I found out that Roger Moore had ripped the whole concept of Amigos off from Taco Time in Washington…  I wonder if it’ll ever open in Lincoln and go head-to-head. They have one in Casper, a couple in Colorado, and one in Ames now. Food is definitely stronger than Amigos.

Seth March 31, 2012 at 5:13am

I really can’t agree strongly enough with these comments.

I grew up with Vals, I’ve come to realize that it’s different than other pizzas (like real New York pizza), but I still love it if for no other reason than nostalgia.

Still, I worked there in high school and college and the company is just chronically mismanaged.

For example, to their credit they might be one of the best restaurants in the country when it comes to food safety, but there’s a difference between cleaning and upkeep. Restaurants have crazy wear and tear, and need to be repaired and remodeled frequently, but they just ignore this. The floors would be sanitary, and I would eat off them, but they’d be old, peeling yellow linoleum. And the walls and woodwork at every vals now are just worn down and dinged.

They’re spread too thin, rumor has it they view the closing of a location as a badge of dishonor, so they keep all these small To-Gos open with a small staff that can’t really keep up, and when you pay low wages and don’t offer many hours you get poor employees.
Despite what was said above, they don’t freeze almost anything (except the thin crust pizzas), but that means that there’s a wide variation in taste, texture and consistency of crust, as pizza dough may be the most fickle thing on the planet.

It seems everyone in Lincoln loved the old sit down buffets, but they got rid of them.
Just to replaced them with these massive “grand” buffets full of Chinese food, tacos, BBQ.  Served in the gross atmosphere you’d expect from a restaurant that charges admission.
I’ve been there a half dozen times and each time is worse, the whole dining experience is more like a theme park than a restaurant.

It’s like they have an identity crisis, do they want to be fast food? a fast causal place? The past decade has seen an explosion of these upscale, casual places and an appreciation for traditional local eateries, they should have capitalized on this and instead they botched it.

I worry they’re like Buick, they’re still doing OK because of tradition, but they’re customers are aging, and younger people have so many more options.

meatball April 2, 2012 at 2:16pm

Maybe someone finally will feel there’s been enough erosion of the Valentino’s brand that they’ll take a shot an franchise a Pizza Ranch in Lincoln. I love Pizza Ranch. Good pizza, broasted chicken and a basic salad bar make for an excellent buffet.

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