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Apr 11 2012

The Boston Globe - Bertucci's redesigns for a younger generation


By D.C. Denison

How does a familiar, family-oriented restaurant chain shake off middle age and become cool enough to attract the digital generation?

It puts its executive chef into a cooking show on YouTube. It changes the music played for patrons to contemporary pop instead of big band arrangements of Italian standards. Instead of 95 cookie-cutter outlets, each restaurant is made to feel like a local business. Booths are phased out in favor of larger, more open tables, suitable for hanging out, and so-called small plates are served to encourage sharing. After 31 years, Bertucci’s is courting a new, youthful clientele in an effort known within the company’s Northborough headquarters as “The Millennial Project.’’ One of Boston’s most tech-savvy marketing agencies, SapientNitro, has been hired to launch a new campaign with an emphasis on digital media. The chain, which has 95 restaurants in 10 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia, last week aired new television and radio ads, introduced new menus, and posted the first episode of the YouTube series featuring head chef Jeff Tenner.

“We’re contemporizing the brand,’’ said Skip Weldon, senior vice president of marketing at Bertucci’s. “We’re moving into a new space.’’ Why revamp the whole brand? The clientele that grew up with Bertucci’s, the baby boomers who embraced wood-fired pizza in the 1980s and 1990s, are getting older and going out less, company executives said. If it wants to grow, the chain needs to attract “Millennials,’’ loosely defined as consumers between the ages of 18 and 30, said Michael Maione, head of the Bertucci’s account at SapientNitro.

“Long term, Bertucci’s has no choice in the matter,’’ said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of food service strategies at WD Partners, a design and development firm based in Columbus, Ohio. As the baby boomers move on, “the torch is being passed to the Millennials,’’ he said.

Founded in 1981 by Joey Crugnale, who opened the original restaurant in Somerville, Bertucci’s grew quickly in its first two decades. In 1998, Crugnale was ousted in a hostile takeover, and Bertucci’s Corp. is now owned by Jacobson Partners, a New York private equity firm.

Growth at the chain, and in the general “casual dining Italian’’ sector, has been relatively flat over the last five years, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago research and consulting firm. Total sales at Bertucci’s during 2011 were $200 million, up just 0.5 percent over the previous year.

Tristano said the new emphasis on Millennials and digital media is a good strategy for a chain that is looking for more dramatic growth.

“Millennials spend less per ticket than baby boomers, but they come in more often,’’ he said. “More importantly, they are your future.’’

Cory Ip, a 28-year-old program manager at SapientNitro, said the agency has identified three primary ways that the restaurant can appeal to younger diners. “Millennials crave unique dining experiences, not chain restaurants,’’ she said. “We also like companies with a mission. And we like to share. I can’t remember the last time that I ate at a restaurant when I didn’t share the food with my friends.’’

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