By Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, Assistant Editor
In tough economic times, casual dining experiences are among the first to go in family budgets and no one knows that better than Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar (Boston’s), a Dallas-based casual-dining concept with locations across the United States. After stalled growth, the brand is focusing on internal changes it believes will drive a positive outlook for 2016 and beyond.
The first step to fixing Boston’s was admitting there was a problem and leveraging the traits that have made its sister company, Canada’s Boston Pizza, successful for more than 50 years.
“It took a lot to admit that there were problems within our system that were inhibiting growth, but we knew the first step to improving the company was not denying our issues and instead bringing them to light so that we could all work to resolve them,” said Troy Cooper, Boston’s chief operating officer, who was brought on board to help address those issues and reposition the brand for continued growth.
He explained, “Boston’s had experienced rapid system growth leading up to some tough economic times in this country. Casual dining experiences are among the first things to be cut from a family’s budget during times of financial insecurities. Some of that lead to a halt in our growth. There were also some poor real estate selections made and franchisee partnerships that were dwindling.”
Once the issue was acknowledged, the company went into action to begin fixing it, closely scrutinizing each individual store. Of the company’s 40 U.S. locations, those that were either underperforming or didn’t meet Boston’s real estate, target demographic, or franchisee criteria were closed.
A bold move, admittedly, but the brand “needed to focus on a solid set of restaurants that could be the foundation for growth.”
At the corporate level, Boston’s replaced 100 percent of its C-suite executives, as well as introduced new, more innovative processes. The new executive team has combined experience in the industry of more than 100 years, comprised of former executives from Coca Cola and Brinker International Restaurants. The new team was assembled with the hope that they would attract potential investors.
Heart of the House Efficiencies
After starting fresh at the local and corporate levels, Boston’s shifted its focus to the heart of the house and worked with owners to improve overall operational efficiencies.
“After close examination, we realized that we needed to reinvent ourselves” said Tim Matousek, vice president of operations. “We claimed to offer gourmet food, but there was room for improvement.”
The chain began to focus more on made-in-house items and scratch-made items to position Boston’s as a serious culinary contender.
Purchasing and IT also got some attention.
“With Purchasing, we were able to streamline some of our agreements with our Canadian counterparts to leverage their buying power and reduce costs for our franchisees. We also began sourcing fresher product that allows us to prepare more of our menu items in-house and from scratch, driving down additional costs and improving overall food quality,” Cooper explained.
“From an IT standpoint, we were able to really invest in improving restaurant equipment and define our in-store tech mandates, whereas before, everyone was using a different point of sale (for example), making it hard to deploy updates without dialing in on an individual basis. Once that base was improved, our IT department began to drive for best-in-class equipment and are continuously working to create simplified infrastructure to improve the end-user experience. We’ve also moved our Helpdesk to Canada to provide 24/7 in-house support for our restaurants.”
Additional changes include major renovations to the franchise development side of the business.
“After rolling up our sleeves and visiting all restaurants in the system, we identified overall issues as well as isolated ones and we were able to implement changes,” Cooper said.
Some of this included a newly-designed prototype with sleek but comfortable finishes and a bigger sports bar, as well as removing single skew items, streamlining prep work, and training on efficient inventory processes.
“We are all passionate about supporting our franchisees and we’re all here to see this thing through,” said Cooper. “A successful turnaround is the most rewarding work you can do and to be here to help restaurateurs grow their business for their own livelihoods is our number one pillar of success.”
With an increased focus on franchisee profitability, they were able to reduce food cost by 3-4 percent in many markets — from a national average of 28 percent down to 24-25 percent with some restaurants running as low as 23 percent.
“Additionally, we’ve rolled out an internal campaign called Celebrate, Escape, Connect,” said Cooper. “Using this internal campaign, we’re focusing on improving the restaurant experience by providing a place for people to celebrate life’s wins, escape life’s stresses, and connect with family and friends. Little things like our servers creating a celebration at each table — celebrating a great hair day, for example —is what we believe people dine-out for and we want to be the restaurant/sports bar of choice for all occasions.”
A Winning Combination
Research shows that the casual-dining brand that can pull off an emotional connection with its customers will win. The three critical areas of engagement are:
1. Expertise (knowledgeable, intelligent, confident — but not arrogant)
2. Contemporary (creative, active, modern — but not “trendy”)
3. Soft (friendly, sincere — but not boring or unimaginative)
“When we did a competitive analysis, we found that a couple of competitor brands are doing well in a couple of those areas (based on consumer research), but none of our competitors are really hitting on all three cylinders,” Cooper said. “So that became our intention — to create a personality based on those three core traits.”
In terms of “Expertise,” Boston’s launched an educational series called “Boston’s University” that attacks complex or intimidating subjects (craft beer and the different beer types, beer pairings, different wines, wine pairings, etc.) for the average guest.
For “Contemporary,” Boston’s updated its brand look and feel (colors, typefaces, tag line, etc.), photography, glassware, and food and beverage menus, as well as designing a new prototype building.
Finally, for “Soft,” Boston’s launched a new operations program focused on the guest experience to really drive home the “friendly” piece of the brand through elevating its service level.
“We also introduced a softer, more transparent/sincere/honest (self-deprecating at times) tone of voice to be help drive that feeling of a more friendly brand,” Cooper said.
But don’t get their optimism wrong. The execs at Boston’s know they are still facing some challenges.
“Some of our biggest challenges…include breaking through the clutter,” Cooper conceded. “We believe we offer a superior product and enjoyable experience but we’re a small fish in a big sea. Trying to differentiate ourselves was a challenge but we’ve been able to identify what we have to offer that our guests find appealing and have been drilling those messages home. From a growth standpoint, it goes back to our support platform focusing our efforts on underperforming stores, and, with limited resources, not being able to focus on sourcing and developing new ones.”
They do, however, believe the research wholeheartedly.
“We believe that what casual-dining guests are telling us is true — that Food, Atmosphere/Service, and General Equity are the most important issues,” Cooper stressed. “And we believe the research that shows certain brands have had great success playing in two of those three arenas.”
Cooper poses the ultimate question: What happens if Boston’s could be the one to tap into all three?
His answer: “We believe a lot of success will follow. We also believe casual-dining guests when they tell us there is an opportunity to connect with them better by being Experts, Contemporary, and Friendly. At the same time, I believe a lot of this is common sense. Empirical data shows us that the right balance of these things is what creates success across almost any sector, but actually pulling it off is a huge challenge.”
The Road Ahead
Boston’s isn’t done yet.
The company’s Road to 100 initiative sets Boston’s on a path to growing the brand to 100 restaurants in the next three years. So far, the success of this initiative can be seen with the recent openings of locations in Ashburn, VA, Abingdon, MD, Tuxtla, Mexico, Patio Santa Fe, Mexico, Casa Grande, AZ, and Monterrey, Mexico.
Between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, Boston’s currently claims more than 400 restaurants. Cooper credits a “strong heritage” with support teams in both Dallas and Mexico City, and “holding (that heritage) close every step of the way.”
The ultimate goal?
“Overall, we’d like to continue to drive our average unit volume and make Boston’s a household name,” Cooper concluded.