Brio Italian Grille and Bravo Italian Kitchen are headed toward an immediate restoration.
On June 12, Earl Enterprises—parent of Planet Hollywood, Buca di Beppo, Bertucci’s, Earl of Sandwich, and Chicken Guy!—announced it finalized the $30 million purchase of the two Italian brands, which declared bankruptcy in April.
Robert Earl, owner of Earl Enterprises, says he’s been a fan of both brands as a consumer since they first opened.
“Synergistically, they fit very well with the other companion brands that we have, so it now gives us four different brands all with their unique features, but all in the Italian dining space,” Earl says. “So it gives us a great footprint now across 30 something states, and we’re going to also be able to market it under the best of Italy.”
Brio, classified as an upscale casual-dining brand, serves dishes like Pasta Alla Vodka, Chicken Limone, and Gorgonzola Salmon Fresca. Meanwhile, Bravo is a core casual-dining restaurant that offers made-to-order Italian food such as Chicken Marsala, Chicken Parmesan, and Pasta Woozie featuring grilled chicken, fresh fettuccine, and house Alfredo. Both operate across 12 states.
Earl says the restaurants are still achieving good sales during the pandemic on a to-go, delivery, and curbside pickup basis. He adds their issues weren’t necessarily at the unit level—the locations just need refreshment.
Some upgrades may include changes to the menu, uniforms, music, flatware, and upholstery.
“Sometimes, some of these bankruptcies relate to financing,” he says. “So I’m not sure it’s a turnaround. They’re two brands that needed freshening, and they needed some new marketing and the combination with our company and our corporate reach and the depth of teams that we have.”
“We’ve gone back to all the most famous and popular dishes that might’ve been taken off the menu,” Earl continues. “We’re freshening up the look of the places. We’re just reenergizing every category and just making sure that every aspect of it will rekindle all the great memories that people had of the brand. I don’t see it so much as a turnaround. I think the obvious things for restaurants are food costs to labor costs to we’ve been negotiating with a bunch of landlords who’ve been very responsive and wanted to keep the brand.”
“I’m not pessimistic that the employee pool for restaurants is going to be difficult. I think people have had enough time at home,” Robert Earl says.
Bravo first opened in 1992 while Brio was founded five years later. By 2006, the two restaurants had expanded to 50 total locations. From 2006 to 2010, the restaurants underwent aggressive expansion and reached 85 units. The company raised $140 million in a public offering in 2010 to cover debt and drive growth. By 2013, there were 107 restaurants.
However, growth and traffic declined as consumer preference shifted to quick-serve and fast-casual. FoodFirst Global Restaurants, formed in 2018, spent $100 million to purchase and take Brio and Bravo private. At the time, the two brands operated a combined 110 locations in 32 states and had sales in excess of $400 million in 2017 with around 10,000 employees.
The acquisition did not have the intended effect as sales dropped to $307 million in 2019. The company closed 71 of its 92 U.S. locations in March, and furloughed 6,000 employees.
In early April, FoodFirst declared bankruptcy, citing an increase in customer satisfaction, but untenable damage from labor costs, employee turnover, and a large number of underperforming stores.
Earl says the timeline of reopening stores is not related to the bankruptcy. Instead, it’s about COVID, monitoring spikes, and ensuring there’s business in the area. One Las Vegas store reopened in early June, which has seen “exceptional numbers.” He plans to reopen a handful of stores each week until the entire portfolio is back online by the end of July.
Several operators have voiced concern over competing with enhanced unemployment benefits when it comes to rehiring furloughed employees. Some workers are making more money on unemployment insurance than they were at their job. The extra $600 per week is set to end in July as Democrats and Republicans debate whether to extend the deadline.
However, Earl does not foresee this being an issue with his thousands of new employees.
“We as a company, my existing businesses and my new businesses, so far, have only had really good reactions from people—that they want to get back to work,” Earl says. “They obviously want to know there’s sufficient hours for them … I’m not pessimistic that the employee pool for restaurants is going to be difficult. I think people have had enough time at home. I think people just want to get out and see their peer group. Obviously, any employee wants to know that it’s a safe workplace. That we’re taking temperatures. The minute anyone is in any way showing any signs, they’re not permitted in the building, whether that’s employee or guest. We’re doing all the appropriate social distancing and all the right work conditions from masks to gloves to every other aspect.”
Earl says the first phase of the strategic plan is to restore Brio and Bravo to “their old glory” and their “heyday of what the product represented.”
Once Earl Enterprises reignites that culture, the company will work on “more revolutionary things.”
“It was perceived as a really tasty, fun place to be, great place to have drinks, and it did very high volumes,” Earl says. “Our target is to initially do that through bringing back all the memories. And then of course as times goes on, every brand has to have some new direction and so there’ll be some new prototypes later. But initially we’re going into the stores and making sure they’re in top condition.”