Hall of Fame Profile: Joey Crugnale
As a child growing up in the Italian North End of Boston, Joey Crugnale -- imitating his father's multiple-job, manual-labor work ethic and aspiring to the independence and affluence of a wealthy businessman uncle -- peddled goods such as toys and car wax to whoever would hear his pitch. When the small-time operations came up short, he would give away his excess inventory to friends and revel in the thrill of having been in the game. In the 1970s, he used the same zeal to build first Joey's Ice Cream and then Steve's Ice Cream, two beloved names in Boston. And then, with a familiar focus on fun and friends, Crugnale started the pizza chain Bertucci's in 1982, ultimately guiding it to five-year growth as high as 3,157% and a Hall of Fame run on the Inc. 500 from 1986 to 1990. And now he has two new projects.
I was 23 when I decided to open a little ice cream store -- not that I knew anything about ice cream. At the time, Steve Herrell's ice cream shop Steve's must have just opened. He had this thick, gummy ice cream and toppings he called Mix-ins. He used old-fashioned rock salt and put the ice cream machine in the window. And people would line up for all of it from open to close, so I said, "That's a business I want to be in."
But I knew I couldn't do the exact same thing that Steve was doing. I had to be a little different. I took the same idea of homemade ice cream but added a twist. I used a different machine that made the ice cream a little lighter. I made a sundae bar, like a salad bar, where you could help yourself and help me hire fewer employees. I called the place Joey's.
Then I bought Steve's for $80,000 in 1976. The place was still packed, and I loved it. I worked hard at it. That was my life -- ice cream 24 hours a day. That's all I ever ate, all I ever did. Everyone wanted to franchise it or expand it. But I wanted no part of that. I just loved making great ice cream. I knew it was special.
Bertucci's started as a defensive move. A store became available a few doors down from us at Steve's, and everyone wanted that space because of the crowds we drew. I didn't want anybody feeding off my business, so I bought the space and kept it vacant for a while. Then I went to Italy for the first time since I had come to the United States as a child. I visited the house I was born in, which my family still owns. My grandmother had this wood-fired brick oven in the backyard and I said, "Nonni, what is that?"
I built a brick oven and put a bocce court in the vacant space, and Bertucci's was born. I wanted to make it fun but never a profit center. My business was Steve's. Bertucci's actually lost money the first couple of years, which was okay. It just became a hangout for my friends. We'd go there and drink wine, play bocce, and eat pizza.
Then my brother and my lawyer, who had invested in Steve's and become my partners, wanted to sell Steve's. I didn't. It was like the seventh wonder of the world to me. But buying them out didn't make financial sense. In a way, I was relieved. I had become frustrated with everyone copying us. Even Ben and Jerry's copied us. Their menu today is a takeoff from the one we had at Steve's. Ben Cohen would come down all the time. He'd come in as a customer and take pictures and ask lots of questions. Eventually, he said he was opening up in Vermont, which was fine.
"I made a ton of mistakes. But at the end of the day I had enough to make payroll. It was fun."
With Bertucci's I started liking the thought of getting a bunch of stores. I was into money. The normal way of thinking, which isn't always right, is that multiples equals money. We just kept opening more restaurants. A lot of it was trial and error. I made a ton of mistakes. But at the end of the day, I made enough to make payroll. And that was a fun time in my life.
I took Bertucci's public in 1991 to fund more growth and get some liquidity for my investors. I still had fun, but I hated some parts of running a public company. I was in charge, but there were so many more people asking questions.
In 1998, I tried to take Bertucci's private. The board approved my bid for the stock I didn't own. But someone came in with a higher bid at the last minute. It hurt to lose my company. I spent 15 to 16 years of my life putting Bertucci's together. I wanted to keep it in my family forever. That really hurt. I wasn't sure that I wanted to get back in the restaurant business.
I had an option on a piece of property, a prime spot in Waltham. I was debating whether to develop it or put a restaurant there or sell it. I was going to call a friend at the Back Bay Restaurant Group. It would have been a great site for one of his concepts. I changed my mind because I knew if I sold to him, he'd do a ton of business there. And whenever I'd drive by -- I lived nearby -- it would kill me. I'd think, "It was a great site and I had it. I gave it away." So I opened a Naked Fish restaurant, where we serve seafood with a Latin twist. One store led to two stores, and then I decided to go full steam ahead because that's really all I know.
I've always taken the common and made it uncommon. Regular ice cream was a commodity. We gave it quality at Steve's. Then at Bertucci's, we took pizza, another commodity, and made it better. Now we're doing great with Naked Fish and we're still fine-tuning Red Sauce, where we're going to serve real, authentic Italian food. But I'm not pushing myself as hard as I used to. I don't have to open up 18 or 20 stores a year. I don't have to go public. I've already done all that.
I don't want to tell you my age. Whenever we used to sit down with lawyers to wrap up a deal, I was always the youngest person in the room. They always asked me, "When did your father start the company? How did your father do this?" I didn't stop them, either. I was kind of flattered. I don't hear that anymore. And that really sucks.
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