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From the Archives: Players: Joey Crugnale

Launched in 1992, Worth turns 25 this year

Pie in the sky? In 1992 Crugnale was hoping to take his restaurant chain national. Photo by Brad Trent/Outline

In a June/July 1992 “Players” piece, Worth profiled entrepreneur Joey Crugnale, who was embarking on his second major restaurant venture: the casual dining pizza and Italian eatery Bertucci’s. At the time he was aiming for this Northborough, Mass., company to expand nationally. In 1992 he grew the business from 26 to 36 locations, and in 1994 it launched in Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, and throughout New Jersery. By 1995 it had 63 stores, and now it’s in 11 states along the East Coast. After taking the company public in 1991, Crugnale tried to take it private again in 1998 when he put in a bid to the board for the stock in the company he didn’t own. But he ultimately lost the business when someone outbid him. That defeat prompted Crugnale to open Naked Fish, a seafood restaurant with a Latin twist, that’s still set in Waltham, Mass., today.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, there are no second acts in American life, what’s to become of Joey Crugnale? Crugnale, you may recall, was the blue-collar kid from Boston’s Italian North End who turned a small Somerville, Mass., store into a worldwide franchise known as Steve’s Ice Cream. A ravenous public was introduced to the concept of premium homemade ice cream, and Crugnale was introduced to his first million ($4.5 of them, in fact) when he sold the company nine years ago [in 1983] at the age of 32. Drifting for a while, he tried real estate (“I built little shopping centers. Big deal.”) then botched a chain of chocolate boutiques (“I got a $2 million education on that one.”). But he could always hear the siren call of the restaurant business. So he started a new company, Bertucci’s Inc., and a new concept.

Here’s the idea: artichoke- and broccoli-type pizzas served in restaurants with huge wood-burning ovens and full bars—hip, though you’re really eating in a chain. In analysts’ argot, this is “casual dining.” Bertucci’s went public last summer with a $19.5 million offering (Crugnale owns 26 percent of the company), and there are now 27 stores in New England. Frequently, there are lines of hungry patrons outside. Crugnale is talking national expansion. But can one man find entrepreneurial bliss twice?

The answer may lie in the closet. “It pisses me off when I gotta dress like this,” he announces, subjecting his button-up collar to a series of ferocious yanks. “But you know investors: They wanna know their money is in professional hands.” Born in Italy, he got his start in the restaurant business busing tables at a Cambridge, Mass., hotel and then simply followed his palate. “I’m not at home with graphs and charts,” he says.

So he ditches the tie for a T-shirt, worn under a camel sports coat—the Miami Vice look—and heads over to his newest restaurant. The crowd is already five deep at the bar. “Jesus, this is burning!” He snatches a giant spatula and disappears head first into the brick oven that he claims is 200 degrees hotter than most of his competitors’ and accounts for his pies’ airy crusts. Reemerging, he observes, “Now what if I wasn’t here? That woulda been burnt.”

He’s in his element now, waist-deep in the exuberant dinnertime sea. “I’m not a great manager,” he declares. “I’m an idea man, a motivator, a cheerleader. This is my passion. I’m selling Italian food. I’m not selling shoes.” He pauses. A look of recognition crosses his face: “I don’t like shoes.”—Darcy Frey

Reprinted from the June/July 1992 issue of Worth.

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