The largest casual-dining restaurant chain in Canada, ironically named for a city in New England, has been substantially increasing its footprint in the U.S. Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar now operates 22 locations in the U.S. and plans to double that in the next four years, says its vice president of marketing Katie Borger.
The gourmet pizza franchise’s adult beverage program will play a key role in growing the U.S. business. Boston’s this past July rolled out a new menu with a refreshed drinks offering. The chain used industry data and input from mixologists and consultants to determine the trending drink styles and flavors that would appeal to its customers.
Boston’s, which currently operates 427 locations—390 in Canada, the 22 in the U.S. and 15 in Mexico—generates $1.1 billion in total annual sales. The concept is both a sports bar and a sit-down restaurant, Borger says, so it needs to be able to offer something for every occasion, from watching the game to eating dinner with friends and family.
The company used analytics to determine what drinks were working, Borger notes. “But we wanted to dabble into new areas,” and add bolder flavors while keeping the options approachable for guests.
Fresh and fun
As with many casual-dining chains, Borger says that the Margarita is the top-selling drink. Boston’s wanted to offer more options within the category, such as an upgraded house version, made with El Jimador Reposado tequila, Cointreau and citrus sour; and a Cucumber Cilantro Margarita, with Casamigos Blanco tequila, Cointreau, cucumber and cilantro shaken with lime.
Another crafty variation is the new Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire Margarita, with Herradura silver tequila, Casamigos mezcal and house-made jalapeño lime sour.
The Boston’s menu includes a Seasonal Mojito, with fresh seasonal fruit, Cruzan rum, mint, lime and soda. “It’s 2020; people know that if you have mint and lime, you can get a Mojito,” or at least, you should be able to get one, Borger says. Using seasonal fruit “allows us to bring more warmth to the cocktail” in the winter months.
The Mule has become a bar staple, but many operators have discovered different ways to put a spin on the classic. Boston’s allows guests to customize their Mules with a choice of Stolichnaya vodka, Woodford Reserve bourbon or El Jimador Reposado tequila. The Mules are made with Q ginger beer.
The Old Fashioned cocktail is not new, “but it has certainly held on, and remains incredibly on-trend,” Borger notes. This speaks to the strength of American whiskey and simple classics.
Boston’s new version is a Burnt Orange & Vanilla Old Fashioned, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, house vanilla syrup and burnt orange zest. Some Old Fashioneds can be too sweet, Borger notes, but the vanilla bean provides an earthiness that complements the orange flavors.
Other new adult beverages include the Basil & Cucumber Collins, made with Aviation gin, fresh basil and cucumber with lemon sour and soda, and a Sparkling Grapefruit Crush, with Deep Eddy Ruby Red vodka and soda water.
Tapping wine and beer preferences
The current wine list at Boston’s includes two whites (a pinot grigio and a chardonnay); two reds (a red blend and a cabernet sauvignon); and a rosé it recently added from Phophecy. The wine selection is admittedly lean: “The beauty of keeping our standardized offering small is that it allows our restaurants to bring in local favorites to plus up their offering if or where needed,” Borger notes.
Boston’s made a key change to the program by going with a ready-made Spanish sangria from Beso Del Sol. Why? “There’s too much variation when making sangria in the restaurants,” Borger says, as it depends on a number of factors, including what time a batch was made.
“We struggled to maintain that consistency before when making sangria in-house,” she explains. With a quality, ready-to-drink product, “we can dress it up with triple sec and fresh fruits from the kitchen.”
Boston’s offers the standard beer options expected at a sports bar/family restaurant, but it has added local and craft beers to the menu. Beer selections can range from everyday, domestic favorites, all the way to barrel-aged, microbrewed local offerings, Borger says, so the pricing varies greatly.
The restaurant is partnering with the app Untappd, which enables users to explore nearby popular bars, breweries and beers. Untappd provides Boston’s the opportunity to change its local offering and manage the beer menu digitally. Guests that download the Untappd app can see what brews are available at their favorite Boston’s location.
“Our restaurants are locally owned and operated, so the owners oftentimes live within five to 10 miles of their business and are deeply connected to their communities and what’s popular in their trade area,” Borger says.
Working with Untappd helps their locations improve that connection to their community by being able to give guests exactly what they want, she adds.
Gus Agioritis opened Boston Pizza and Spaghetti House in 1964 in Edmonton, Alberta. Agioritis began franchising the concept in 1968 after he was approached by Jim Treliving, an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Treliving partnered with George Melville to open 16 Boston Pizza locations in 10 years.
Treliving and Melville acquired the business, then known as Boston Pizza and up to 44 units, in 1983. They grew Boston Pizza throughout Western Canada and expanded to Eastern Canada in the 1990s. The first U.S. location opened in Tempe, AZ, in 1998.
Boston Pizza set up a U.S. headquarters in Dallas, and changed the U.S. name to Boston’s The Gourmet Pizza and eventually to Boston’s Pizza Restaurant & Sports Bar.
It’s worth noting that Boston’s does not yet actually have a location in Boston, or anywhere in New England, for that matter. The closest location to Boston for now is the Waldorf, MD, restaurant.
The chain also serves much more than pizza, with over 80 menu items available including burgers, pasta and wings. Boston’s started 2020 with several limited-time, lifestyle-dining offerings designed to cater to keto, vegan and paleo diets.
For instance, the keto-friendly Fathead Pizza has a crust made from almond flour, flax seed, eggs and cheese, topped with mozzarella pepperoni, salami, jalapenos and marinated mushrooms. The Chili Lime Shrimp Bowl holds grilled shrimp, cauliflower rice, roasted vegetables, cabbage mix, cilantro and chili lime aioli. Boston’s also has some specialty dairy- and meat-free pizzas and a light version of its Spinach & Artichoke Dip.
Boston’s is opening four restaurants—potentially five or six—for sure this year, says Borger, who started with Boston’s in 2004 as a marketing intern. She was promoted from senior director of marketing to her current role in January 2020.
A beverage boost
After introducing the craft cocktails, “We’ve definitely seen an uptick on beverages being consumed in the dining room—not just the sports bar,” Borger says. “They have become the top-selling beverages that are ‘menued,’ while still allowing us to offer the more bar-focused beverages such as the drinks served in goblets and our signature shooters,” she explains.
Speaking of shooters, Boston’s also upgraded its shots offering. It added a PB&J shot with Frangelico and Chambord, a Green Tea shot with Jameson Irish whiskey, DeKuyper Peach and sour mix, and a White Gummie Bear shot, with Raspberry vodka, DeKuyper Peach and sour.
Other shot standbys include the basic Boilermaker and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch (RumChata and Fireball).
The shots are priced at about $5 each. Guests can also opt for a can of Red Bull and choose from a shot of Tito’s vodka, Jagermeister or Fireball to go with it.
Boston’s wanted its shooters to be more playful and fun, Borger says. “You’re not taking a shot unless you’re celebrating something” or out to have a good time.
Learning from LTOs
Borger worked with consultant Stuart Melia of Britten Cocktail Productions on the beverage revamp. Melia, who ran corporate beverage programs for operators including O’Charley’s and Craftworks, has essentially acted as Boston’s beverage director, she says.
“He’s up on the worldwide beverage trends,” Borger says of Melia, who did a deep dive into the chain’s liquor, wine and beer offerings and presented fresh options. “He’s helping us stay on top of trends through our LTO offering and is constantly working to help us support our operators on how to become more profitable behind the bar.”
Boston’s partnered with syrups and puree supplier Monin on a first-quarter, limited-time line of mocktails. These included a New England Spritz with blood orange, tonic and lime juice; the Jalisco Cooler, which combines mango and grapefruit with lemon-lime soda; and a Golden Turmeric Mule, featuring ginger beer with turmeric, mango and lime juices.
“We’re working toward a new drink menu for a mid-summer launch, and may look to include some of these depending on their performance in the LTO,” Borger notes.
The LTOs have enabled the chain to test different spirits and flavors with its audience. For instance, Boston’s did a Winter Aperol Spritz cocktail LTO for the holiday season, combining the bitter Italian spirit with cranberry and apple juices and fresh mint.
“There was some interest in it,” Borger says of the Winter Aperol Spritz, “but we knew it was a ‘love it or leave it’ cocktail, based on how divisive the bitter taste profile can be.”
Offering it as an LTO “allowed us to play in a trend for a period of time without fully committing to it to gauge how our guests receive this type of innovation.”