Boston Business Journal

60 Years in New England: Papa Gino's CEO Talks Marketing … and Pizza

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The Boston Business Journal interview series Insider View: Candid Conversations with Forward Thinking Leaders is a one-on-one discussion with interesting and influential business leaders. Doug Banks, BBJ's executive editor had a recent conversation with Tom Sterrett, president and CEO of New England Authentic Eats, better known as Papa Gino's Pizzeria and D'Angelo grilled sandwiches, who took the role in 2019.

The full interview includes Papa Gino's comeback from bankruptcy, survival through Covid, recent digital marketing strategy and plans for growth, along with Sterrett's favorite style of pizza and the song Banks played on Papa Gino's tabletop jukeboxes in the 1980s. A brief sample of the interview is below; to see the full interview, click the link below.

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A lot of people may still be under the impression that Papa Gino's is a bankrupt company. It went bankrupt, and a lot of restaurants closed. Talk about what's happened since then.

Sterrett: No doubt. You know, our goal is to grow back into those communities. When you have brands that have been around this long, you've got to keep up with them. Management, I don't think, continued to invest and grow and relocate restaurants when the center of the community may have moved. Bankruptcy was probably the best way to keep these brands growing. It allowed us to get out of difficult lease situations and unprofitable restaurants where we had limited dollars to invest. We want to invest those into winning situations. So we're going to come back. We weren't losing communities, they were just bad businesses at that time. So we made some tough decisions and had to close underperforming restaurants. We kept the best of the best, and when I say "best of the best," I mean people. We were able to retain. And that was a big part of the challenge — we didn't keep up with great talent and compensation programs to keep people motivated, to drive a great guest experience. And that's what happens.

Another consensus understanding is that Covid hurt Papa Gino's. But this all happened pre-Covid. You closed about 100 restaurants. You still had about 100 open, and then Covid hits. So, Tom, how on earth could you guys have survived that?

Sterrett: Well, you know, we couldn't do it again without the team we had, but we rallied very quickly. We assembled our Covid task force. We listened and learned and tried to stay on top of the pulse of the virus. We knew that to survive, we would have to create a safe work environment for our team members to feel good about coming to work every day. And if we did that and could demonstrate that on our own, it would be a great environment for guests to come. The team rose to the occasion. We adapted, we adjusted. Fortunately, both brands do well in a couple of different categories that thrived during the pandemic — delivery and carryout. So as people hunkered down and worked remote and lived at home and we adjusted our business model to accommodate that. We adjusted our catering. We adjusted our meal size — to family packs. So all those types of things during the pandemic to, again, listen to the consumer, keep a safe place to work and keep driving the business. And you know, we've been very successful, fortunately, through the pandemic.

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