A Conversation with Robert Earl, the New Owner of Bertucci’s

He’s been slicing up deals in Boston since the ’70s. But can this globetrotting millionaire save Bertucci’s, the region’s beloved Italian restaurant chain?

Courtesy photo

Robert Earl leads a charmed life. When we spoke recently, the salt-and-pepper-haired restaurateur was perched in a hotel room overlooking the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. From there, he was headed to France, then L.A., and finally back to the East Coast, where he’ll undoubtedly check in on his latest acquisition: the beloved but recently bankrupt Bertucci’s. He is the first to admit that the chain of brick-oven Italian restaurants, which started in Somerville, has suffered from years of mismanagement. But Earl, who made a fortune marketing Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood to the masses, has a knack for bringing businesses back from the brink of extinction. And here, he sees nothing but opportunity.

With all due respect, of all the businesses that you could have bought, why Bertucci’s?

Well, to start with, I’m unquestionably a deal junkie. I readily admit to it, and I’m always looking for opportunities. If I have one unique skill, it’s taking businesses that have gotten in trouble and quickly understanding what’s needed to rapidly give them life. I move at a pace that most people don’t move at, and when things have gone through bankruptcy, I instantly understand what needs to be done. In the case of Bertucci’s, it really checked all the boxes for me: It was a brand that lost its way and could be resuscitated very quickly. And we’ve already done so.

What’s been your recipe there?

It makes it easier that there’s already a nice management team in place that understands the local market and is very knowledgeable. And they happen to have the same mindset as me, which is: “You should never change a winner.” Over the years at Bertucci’s, different companies came in and financially engineered the menu to downgrade some of the ingredients. So we proactively sought out and hired the former chef and immediately went to work on going back to the old recipes and the old love for the menu that made Bertucci’s what it was.

The original Bertucci’s in Somerville had a bocce court in the basement. Think you’ll add bocce courts elsewhere?

We’ve only got one bocce court out of 59 locations now. While we don’t have the space at every location, we are looking at adding bocce courts at three or four more. But my focus has primarily been on finding a location for a new flagship in Boston. I’ve been to the city several times quite recently to look at locations.

Space is tight here and rents are sky-high. What do you want in the flagship locale?

I want somewhere that has lots of visitors to the city coming through it and is centrally positioned so that we can deliver lunches and dinners to offices. And I want a location where there are a lot of people working who are familiar with the Bertucci’s brand from back in their own suburb or hometown.

The food scene in Boston keeps getting better and better. How do you compete with places like Area Four or Coppa that are doing really good pizzas?

First off, we don’t compete with fine-dining and one-off restaurants. I look for the customer who has varied needs during the week. Maybe they’re eating lunch somewhere special in Boston with clients but on the weekend they go to Bertucci’s with the family. But I take exception with the second part of your question about really good pizza. Next time I’m in Boston, you and I will meet up and have a big meal at Bertucci’s, and you’ll tell me that our pizzas are also really good. The quality of our brick ovens is superb and we can heat up the temperatures to nearly 1,000 degrees. And we’ve completely improved the quality of our ingredients.

You were born and raised just outside of London, but have been doing business in Boston for years. When did you first start coming here?

My romance with Boston goes back to about 1973 or 1974—whatever year the Hyatt in Cambridge opened. My wife and I were there on business and the hotel was sold out by the time we got there and they couldn’t honor the reservation we had made. So they ended up giving us a huge banquet suite that seemed to run the length of the Charles. It was so big that we played Frisbee in it, and then they wheeled in a bed for us.

Did you really play Frisbee?

Of course. I’m not joking. That is a memory of the American hotel experience that has lingered for me.

Where do you stay now when you’re in town?

I stay at the Mandarin Oriental, and let me tell you a wonderful story about the Mandarin that shows how high the level of hospitality is in Boston. I always stay in the same suite, which overlooks Boylston Street, and the suite has a large lounge, then a bedroom, then a changing room, then a bathroom with a heated toilet. It’s quite a long way from the heated toilet seat to the door. So one night I got in and I was very hungry and ordered room service, and it must have arrived when I was in the bathroom because I didn’t hear them knocking. And I went ballistic because I was starving and didn’t get my food. Well, the next time I came, they had installed—just for me, because it wasn’t in any other room—a doorbell that plays “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” And now every time I come, they install it.

Speaking of music, your father was a famous singer in the U.K. Are you blessed with his pipes, or do you have another creative outlet?

I’m just a simple workaholic who enjoys every day. I’m very lucky with three kids and a wife who are all healthy. I also try to be a good mentor to as many people as possible.

Is being a workaholic ever problematic?

I’ve never found it to be so. The thing is, I just cannot turn off. I’m one of those people that, come the morning, you’ll find little pieces of paper all over my house or hotel room with all types of ideas and notes scribbled on them. I cannot turn the engine off. And I love it.

You’re also an owner of Earl of Sandwich, the sandwich chain that has a location near Boston Common. Is it true that one of your partners in that business is a direct descendant of the man who actually invented the sandwich, or is that just good marketing?

It is 100 percent true. There are two stories as to how the sandwich was invented, but they both involve John Montagu, who was the fourth Earl of Sandwich. There was a naval port in Sandwich, England, and Montagu was the earl and also the first Lord of the Admiralty [the political head of the Royal Navy]. And he was fighting against the French and had no time to feed his troops and he said, “Just get two pieces of bread and put some beef in the middle.” The other story is that the same earl was a gambler and he was in his gentlemen’s club playing cards and he didn’t want to even get up to take a leak, let alone take his hands off his cards to eat a meal, so he ordered his chef to bring him bread with beef in between so he could play with one hand. And now, several generations later, his direct descendant, also named John Montagu, is the 11th Earl of Sandwich and a member of the House of Lords. The family has given me a perpetual license to use their name on the sandwich shops and he is active in the business. I’m actually going to be with them tomorrow in France.

Another one of your partners is Guy Fieri. Is the Guy Fieri we see on TV different from the Guy Fieri you see in the boardroom?

All I can say is that he’s one of the most solid people I have ever met. And believe me, if you ask me about the right celebrity, I’ll absolutely tear into them. But not Guy. I’ve been able to see him now a few times in Santa Rosa, California, where he lives. He’s down to earth, he’s fabulous in the garden, and he’s a family man. And we’re moving together into the chicken business with a concept called Chicken Guy and I’m 100 percent going to bring one to Boston.

Chicken? Isn’t there already KFC and Popeyes and Chick-fil-A?

You have the great traditional brands you just mentioned, but the new fried-chicken space is not dominated by anyone. Nobody has done what Shake Shack did to burgers in the chicken space yet.

You made a small fortune by launching Planet Hollywood. What was the deal with the Planet Hollywood jackets?

Just the other day a friend at Tommy Hilfiger sent me a photo from Instagram of one of the jackets for sale at a retro second-hand clothing shop, and joked that I should start making them again because that’s just so of the moment right now. But the story behind the jackets was we always personalized them for the celebrities that came to celebrate a Planet Hollywood opening. And that didn’t hurt our merchandise sales.

Were you surprised by how successful Planet Hollywood merchandise was?

No, because I’d had the learning curve at Hard Rock Café, which up until then stood alone in terms of having souvenir merchandise tied to a restaurant concept.

Do you have a favorite piece of memorabilia that you’ve acquired for Planet Hollywood?

That’s hard. Our collection has been valued at more than $50 million, and we’re very proud of that. I don’t think I can say I have one favorite piece, but I do love that we have the plunger from The Bridge on the River Kwai and the bicycle from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I guess if I had to pick a favorite, though, I do love our James Bond collection. There’s a scene in Dr. No when Ursula Andress gets out of the water in a tan-colored bikini and has a little dagger pouch on her hip, and I’m the very proud owner of that [bikini].

You started Planet Hollywood in the age of Stallone and Schwarzenegger—big action flicks with huge stars. How has the idea of who a celebrity is changed over the years?

I think everything in the world has changed with the progression of social media, including how people feel about the idea of celebrity. The people that now constitute celebrity are a much broader crowd of individuals, and they don’t necessarily have the same level of training or experience as we may have been used to. They might be much earlier in their career when they have these massive followings. That’s something that I’m really intrigued by. I think the public’s fascination with celebrity is growing, not diminishing. It’s just that we get so much more insight into their lives because of social media.

You’ve had a pretty successful streak in the world of marketing. Do you think businesses are focused too much on influencers and millennials?

No, I think that’s where the big spending is now, and I think the invention of Instagram and influencers and foodie sites has been a great thing for the restaurant industry as a whole. I can’t speak to other industries, such as telecom, but in the restaurant business it’s great. And I think the food and restaurant industry will continue to benefit as traditional retail declines.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

Go to Shanghai. The opportunities between the East and the West have not even started. But other than that, I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Biggest fear?

I definitely always have a weight problem because I eat excessively in huge amounts. And I am always bragging to friends about having the best genes because my father is 92 and he’s still very healthy. And recently a friend said, “Well, you don’t see many fat 90-year-olds.” So now I’m desperately trying to watch my weight, which is a bit tough.

Go-to drink?

I gave up Diet Coke and I’ve replaced it with rosé champagne. I love to drink it and it doesn’t give me a headache.

Should Boston bring back happy hour?

That’s a tough one. It’d certainly be good for the restaurants.