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Once a brick oven juggernaut, Bertucci’s fire dims with bankruptcy

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 4/19/2018 By Janelle Nanos

In the pantheon of pizza parlor chains, Bertucci’s always strove to be a bit better than the rest, with its brick-oven bona fides, rustic dinner rolls, and signature olives in the center of its pies. Yet, in an era of “pizza disruption," that’s no longer enough. 

The Northborough-based pizza chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday, citing seven years of sliding sales and revenue. In the filing, chief finance officer Brian Connell pointed to the rising popularity of quick-casual eateries and the oversaturation of the restaurant industry as key factors in Bertucci’s decline. 

“Consumers have more options than ever for spending discretionary income, and their preferences continue to shift towards cheaper, faster alternatives,” he wrote. The company plans to sell the business to a private equity firm for about $20 million, and downsize to 59 stores. At its height in the 1990s, the chain operated more than 100 restaurants across the Northeast.

The problems Bertucci’s faces aren’t unique to the pizza business. As consumers are increasingly diverting their dollars to newer, faster, more innovative business models, longstanding brands are suffering from what might best be called the curse of the familiar. The retail landscape is littered with the carnage of dozens of family-style restaurants, established chain stores, and other consumer icons that have filed bankruptcy claims in recent months.

The consumer mindset of the moment is antithetical to the basic business premise behind chain stores or restaurants, which operate on a model of “replicate and repeat and build efficiencies,” said Ed Doyle, the president of the Cambridge-based RealFood restaurant consultancy. Today’s shopper is looking for experience and value with a “high level of cool,” he said. “When was the last time that your Instagram feed has someone posting from Bertucci’s?”

There was an era, of course, where Bertucci’s was both cool and inspired. 

The company’s founder, Joey Crugnale, was an Italian immigrant who grew up in the North End who got his start in the food business with an ice cream shop in Somerville’s Teele Square. Eventually, he bought Steve’s Ice Cream from its founder, Steve Herrell, in 1976, and is credited with cultivating its cult status. He opened up his first Bertucci’s pizza restaurant in 1981 as a defensive move; he didn’t want any other restaurateurs to open up alongside Steve’s and siphon off his business. 

The concept — a brick oven pizzeria with a bocce ball court — seems to check all the boxes for innovative dining in today’s day and age. The trademark wood-fired pizzas cooked in just five minutes, and the menu was affordable for a family, costing less than $10 per person.

Crugnale built the chain to 21 stores, and took the company public in 1991, at a point that today might be considered the age of Applebee’s, when casual, if slightly indistinguishable family-friendly establishments could draw a cross-section of the public with all-American fare (calorie counts be damned). Seniors showed up for the early bird specials and tchotchkes on the wall. Families celebrated big events and took advantage of the kids-eat-free promotions. And teens turned up after hours for the half-priced appetizer deals and endless breadsticks.

But today, who wants to eat that way? 

“It’s a good name, Bertucci’s, and I actually like their pizza,” said Dave Downing, the managing director of leasing strategy for the Graffito SP real estate firm, which works with area restaurants. “I like it but I don’t know the last time I’ve had it.”

And therein lies the problem, he said. Boston has seen a recent tide of “disruptive” fast casual pizza chains such as Oath, Otto, Crush, Blaze, and the forthcoming &Pizza enter the market, each of which offer gourmet slices in just minutes and at a fraction of the time of a Bertucci’s meal. (It also helps that you don’t have to tip.) At the same time, Downing said, more traditional full service pizza chains have also upped their game, with restaurants like Frank Pepe’s and Area Four adding more competition in the sit-down segment. 

Casual dining restaurants on the whole have seen a steady decline in sales over the last decade, as quick-service concepts have eaten away at their margins and now account for 81 percent of all meals, said Bonnie Riggs, a food industry analyst with the NPD Group. “For millennials, especially millennial working moms and families, it’s all about convenience,” she said. “Millennials don’t want to take the time for a long sit-down meal.” 

And real estate developers are increasingly playing to those demands, and are looking to replace longstanding tenants that once held 20-year leases with shiny new concepts.

“Every developer that we’re working with who used to look for national credit or a big bankroll, wants a unique, cool, inspired concept,” Doyle said. “They realize that to keep retail alive the food and beverage [segment] is really carrying a lot of that burden.”

Bertucci’s has attempted to stoke the public’s interest in the months leading up to the bankruptcy announcement, and recently introduced food and wine pairings, specialty menus with risotto and artisanal cheese boards, and express 15-minute lunches. A mobile app was rolled out last September.

Bertucci’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday. At its height in the 1990s, the chain operated more than 100 restaurants in the Northeast, including this one in Waltham.© Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/File 2012 Bertucci’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday. At its height in the 1990s, the chain operated more than 100 restaurants in the Northeast, including this one in Waltham.

On Wednesday, the Bertucci’s on Main Street in Cambridge — the oldest location currently in operation — was doing a brisk lunch business, with several tables of customers having lunch meetings, and two school groups dining at long shared tables. The decor, with its mix of Tuscan gold, ochre, and browns, felt a bit dated, but no one seemed to mind. 

The manager on site, who asked not to be named because she wasn’t authorized to talk to the press, said she’d been fielding questions from her regulars, and has been working to reassure them that the chain wasn’t going anywhere. 

“People like to try the shiny and new,” she said. “But after a while, everyone comes back to home.”


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