From the biggest players down to the startups, there’s a feeling around the restaurant industry that a second coming of casual dining has arrived. You see it touching all aspects of the business—service lifted by technology, simplified food preparation with a nod to better execution, new prototypes built around the customer experience—to provide just a small glimpse. But what this means to specific brands is hard to pin down, and one of the reasons this period is among the most transformational in the full-service sector’s history.
Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar, however, knows exactly where it fits.
“It’s really an interesting situation,” says Jeff Melnick, Boston’s executive vice president. “This second coming of casual dining, where those older concepts have matured, it means now we can come in and have an opportunity be a fresh, new undiscovered brand.”
Boston’s is far from an unknown entity in the space, but that doesn’t mean it’s not prime for a revival of sorts. Melnick, who joined in late April, is a 40-year industry veteran, including an 18-year stint with Chili’s where he started as a manager and ended as regional director of operations in Southern California, responsible for 78 restaurants. Afterward, Melnick served as senior vice president of operations at Red Robin, and, most recently, held the position of vice president of CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries Inc., where he was brand leader of the Gordon Biersch concept. Throughout the journey, Melnick specialized in helping casual brands reach their potential. And that objective has never been more open, or complex, than it is today.
Where Boston’s stands in the debate is rather unique. Introduced to the U.S. in 1998, the chain has the backing of its sister concept, Boston Pizza—a collection of 400-plus locations throughout Canada that doesn’t lack for brand equity. The U.S. version currently features 23 locations across 16 states, and has traveled an up-and-down path in recent years. Back in 2013, Boston’s had 40 restaurants. It started to contract after looking into locations and addressing real estate and demographic missteps, the company said at the time. In May 2017, the company rolled out a brand refresh at its U.S. stores, repositioning them as “America’s Sports Restaurant,” and placing a stronger emphasis on core products. This included a new company logo and decision to closer align with its Canadian powerhouse counterpart.
Boston’s closed out 2017 with 33 franchise agreements signed, and a path to more than double its national footprint.
The evolution of Boston’s system has created some support and distribution challenges, however. Having 23 locations spread across 16 states is a trying dynamic for a franchise system. Melnick says one of his first goals is to spend time in the field and figure out, from talking to operators, how Boston’s can better support its franchisees. “We want to make sure it’s world class,” he says. “Then we can come up with a growth strategy where we can build market share and relevance in some of the markets we’re already in.”
Melnick says there’s still due diligence to be done before outlining this strategy, but filling out markets is one that appears to fit. Boston’s wants to support and encourage current franchisees to grow, and that’s likely the best path to do so.
“Our No. 1 pillar, as far as being a brand in the U.S., is to support our franchisee profitability,” Melnick says, noting that streamlining purchasing and distribution is an opportunity given the current lack of scale. “To make sure this is a winning combination for everyone. So working around food cost and labor initiatives that will help with efficiency in the restaurants is a top priority as far as I’m concerned.”
Fittingly, Melnick’s first day with Boston’s—on April 30—was at the company’s franchise conference in Orlando, Florida. He was able to chat with franchisees from Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, and gauge the brand’s progress and targets from a broad perspective.
“There is still a lot of excitement. It’s become multi-generational up in Canada for people who have supported the brand and handed it down to their children and involved them in the business,” he says. “And there’s a real passion for what Boston’s has to offer. That’s why I think it’s such a unique opportunity here in the U.S.”
“We have that resonance of our success in Canada,” he adds. “I think I’m blessed with the opportunity. The reputation for our Canadian success is really gaining interest in the states, and that’s something that we’re going to take advantage of.” In addition to guests, this carries weight with current and perspective franchisees, as well as investors, Melnick says.
Among Melnick’s realizations was the fact that Boston’s is ideally positioned to be a step above its casual competitors, which is exactly what guests look for in a marketplace flooded with more high-quality options than ever. When the food blurs between limited and full service as it does today, it’s the defining traits and experiential offerings that inspire loyalty.
“Before scratch kitchens were even a thing in the casual-dining space, that’s what we were doing. We still do that. It’s part of our brand. We’re going to be make it non-negotiable.”— Jeff Melnick, Boston’s executive vice president.
Boston’s biggest tool here is a two-in-one concept that draws up a distinctly differentiated family restaurant and sports bar under one roof.
“We really appeal to guests, especially the millennial families, for more than one occasion. We have a separate restaurant and sports bar patio. We offer catering, delivery. And so I think that allows us to be very approachable,” he says.
The rebrand played an important role in helping Boston’s carve out this niche.
“A brand reimage is more important than ever,” Melnick adds. “We’re an experience. It’s not just for the food. Since everyone has a screen in their hand, we really have to make sure that our viewing experience is top notch. Guests have to feel comfortable and able to relax and enjoy themselves in order to keep our relevance and top reputation in a competitive market.”
Melnick says the Canadian system were the front-runners in Boston’s U.S. rebranding effort. “With their scale we can then take what they’ve done and then adapt it and adapt the brand here in the U.S., as well as Mexico to accommodate flavor experiences, ingredients, and experiential preferences based on the culture,” he says.
When it comes to the menu, Melnick says, Boston’s needs to keep the offerings diverse to live up to its rebranding promise. The idea there’s no veto vote in the design needs to apply to the offerings. And that’s something that extends beyond simple variety to quality and trust with the consumer as well. There are 90 menu items on Boston’s menu. Its last update, in May, featured thin-crust gourmet pizzas built using the same made-from-scratch dough that’s been a staple of the Canadian brand for 50-plus years. The creations were: Skinny Carnivore, Potato Bianca, and Pizza Bella.
“What’s also special about us is we care about the food experience. So before scratch kitchens were even a thing in the casual-dining space, that’s what we were doing,” Melnick says. “We still do that. It’s part of our brand. We’re going to be make it non-negotiable.”
Melnick says casual brands thrive when they allow guests to control the experience. Boston’s has a sports bar side to present a livelier experience. It also offers a warm, friendly atmosphere for families on the other side. And the core qualities thread throughout.
Another unique Boston’s feature, again related to the Canadian concept, is the fact the U.S. franchise is probably two generations behind when it comes to innovation, Melnick says. So the runway for future growth is sizable. This includes everything from online ordering and mobile pay to handheld devices. It flips sometimes, too. For instance, Boston’s U.S. business has a loyalty program Melnick says is a step ahead. The structure of this relationship is essentially like attacking innovation on two fronts.
“Canada having the scale that they do, they’re working hard to share what resonates with their guests, and help us discern,” he says. “Technology moves so quickly that we have to make smart choices. North America as a whole, Canada and the U.S, as well as Central America and down in Mexico, we’re going to be working on a united front on that technology to make it more approachable for the guest.”
The loyalty program is something Melnick sees as powerful outlet for Boston’s, especially considering how challenging it can be to channel social media with a spread-out footprint. “Loyalty allows us to talk to our own guests, and keep them informed on the experiences that they can have in the restaurant as well as new news in regards to the menu. That’s crucial for us,” he says.