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With all the sales-driving initiatives you’ve introduced the past 12 months, why are you confident sales will turn around?

The business has its ups and downs, and as a whole, not just our business but also casual dining and the polished-casual segment are going through some transition. When that happens, some brands focus exclusively on value and substantial discounts, and usually those are short-lived. We tend not to go that direction, but it does impact the business slightly.

We implemented a Lighter Side of Tuscany menu, which we think is the future of casual dining, because people are looking for more healthful options, and ours are at a slightly lower price point than the regular menu. Spice costs less than cream. It’s been very successful, and 20 percent of our entrée counts at Brio’s dinner come from there, which impacts our average check slightly.

While 2013 hasn’t tracked the way we wanted, the future is bright for Brio and Bravo and the segment. As employment gets better, people’s confidence will get better, and we think all those things lend to more frequency.

Many casual-dining brands are focusing on the lunch daypart to turn sales around. Is that a focus for Bravo Brio as well?

For us, lunch has always been a profitable part of our business, and it accounts for 40 percent of our guest counts and 30 percent of our revenue. It’s always been a part of our philosophy, so there have always been lunch specials for a value perspective. Our Lunch Pronto program lets consumers get a meal and leave in 45 minutes, so it’s all about speed. Our menu has always had entrée salads, which are very appealing to a female crowd and that lunch crowd, plus we’re located in shopping areas, which helps with lunch traffic. It’s a segment people are trying to grow, and for us it’s the portion we have a good hold on, so we need to work to maintain it and grow it.

The Italian scene is seeing most of its growth in the new fast-casual segment. Are these upstart brands going to cause challenges for Bravo and Brio?

Fast casual is the segment of the business that’s here to stay. Even within that category, for every Chipotle there is a Baja Fresh, and for every Panera Bread there is a Così. A lot of the Italian segment has been around the pizza side rather than full-service Italian. But, as to how many brands end up like Chipotle, that chapter hasn’t been written yet.

Therefore, we need to elevate our quality of food, because we believe there is still a guest base looking for that table service. For people going out today, it’s more than getting something to eat. A lot of baby boomers still aren’t used to standing in line for something to eat, and they’re more comfortable in table service settings, and we think we can enhance that for them.

Consumers are asking for new things like organic and local products, so we think this is a winning formula for Bravo and Brio. We’re one of the few companies to operate with executive chefs to allow for flexibility in menu development, rather than get everything from a commissary.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN