As of mid-January, quite a bit of work remains in the construction of Za's Italian CafÃ©.
If restaurant owner Bruce Hink has his way, UW students will have yet another choice for pizza in downtown Madison by the end of February. Za's Italian Cafe is currently under construction in the former home of Blockbuster Video on the 500 block of State St.
Operating on a made-to-order cafeteria-style system, Za's features a menu of 40-odd ingredients that can be mixed and matched to create limitless varieties of pizzas, pasta dishes, salads and sandwiches. "It's kind of fun to play with and say how do you let people have anything they want," says Hink. "Most restaurants can't do that because it slows things down."
Za's is the latest in a line of fast casual eateries that have sprouted along State over this decade. Unlike the viral national chains like Cosi or Chipotle, which each have outlets on the street, Za's can only be found in a couple of other college towns, namely Champaign, Ill., and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Hink recognizes how weary his potential customers might be of ordering off small menus at assembly-line eateries. "The restaurant industry is kind of broken," he says. "When you have to ask people the same question over and over again, how can any human being do that and retain a friendly attitude?"
At Za's, customers order by writing on color-coded forms, which reduces the number of botched orders. "It makes it a lot easier to have friendly people when you have this system," he says. Hink also points to Za's use of non-disposable plates and silverware along with competitive prices that favor the typical college student's slim bank account.
Hink has been working on transforming the old Blockbuster into a restaurant since November, though much remains to be done. He is also trying to keep the opening low-key. "When somebody doesn't know you're going to give them something, when you give them something out of the blue, it's much easier to excite them," he says.
Za's Italian Cafe will be open from mid-morning to late evening, pointedly avoiding a status as a bar-time snack destination. Hink also says the restaurant will not be selling beer or other alcohol. "If you were going to wait on people, would you want to wait on drunk people or sober people?" he asks. "Where would you rather work?"