For MU graduate Darren Gray, helping open a Fazoli’s in downtown Columbia was like coming home.
Gray is the head chef of the Fazoli’s franchise, a job that entails overseeing the menu at 217 locations across the U.S. He graduated in 1990 with a degree in food science and nutrition and said the skills he learned at MU helped him in his current role at the Italian eatery.
Columbia’s newest Fazoli’s, located in the Lofts on Ninth Street, opened to the general public Aug. 28. Fazoli's features pasta and flatbread dishes and is located throughout the Midwest and parts of the South.
Gray said he worked with former MU food science instructor Robert Marshall, who motivated him to pursue a master’s degree.
“I told Dr. Marshall that I wanted to go to graduate school and work under him,” Gray said in an email. “He told me that he had already taught me everything he knew and wanted me to go someplace else for grad school and learn from others and experience something new. That new (place) turned out to be the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.”
Gray is responsible for the recently reworked Fazoli’s menu. FastCasual.com ranked Fazoli's No. 1 of 50 "fast-casual" restaurant chains and named it Brand of the Year last spring.
Gray said his job sometimes allows him to visit the different locations, and he had to beg his boss to let him come to the Ninth Street opening. Gray said he would not have missed it for the world.
"I was the most annoying person at the corporate office ever, in Lexington, Ky.,” Gray said. “I begged them to let me go. The marketing team got an idea to make a huge cartoon version of me — a cutout. Monday night, people were knocking on our door to see if we were open yet. It was so great."
Gray said his goal with the new Fazoli's was to give busy MU students a lot of options. He said he knows college students are on the run, so he developed flatbreads that are easy to take on the go. These flatbreads can be wrapped up and taken to class, work or a late night study session, Gray said.
Gray also said he knows that students like to mix it up and add variety to their life. The “Pick Your Pasta” option allows customers to choose the type of pasta, sauce and spices they like.
The opening of the new Fazoli’s is something Gray said will be a learning experience for him and for the company.
“Most of our locations have drive-thrus, so it will be interesting to see how the non-drive-thru option will work,” Gray said. “Honestly with the great crowd Mizzou offers, we really don’t think we need one.”
Gray said the best advice he ever received comes from Marshall.
“I have taken a few leaps of faith in my career and that courage has really paid off,” Gray said. “I have a great job at Fazoli's, and I love what I do. You can never be afraid to try something new that takes you out of your comfort zone for the purpose of getting what you want in life. That is most important lesson Dr. Marshall taught me at Ol’ Mizzou.”
Gray also said Marshall was the one who told him never be afraid to fail. He said that advice has helped him get to where he is today.
“Fazoli's new Italian Melts have been met with lots of positive reviews, but the product went through several modifications and tests to get to the yummy product we have today,” Gray said in an email. “There were a few failures along the way, but those setbacks have lead to the great product we have now. I hope everyone will stop by our new location and try one.”