Beyond Bagels: Bruegger’s Enterprises CEO James Greco

For James Greco, CEO of Bruegger’s Enterprises, a Burlington, Vt.-based $200 million chain of cafe-bakery shops, business is all about reviving withering entities. His comeback achievements include stints as CEO at both Dunkirk, N.Y.- based ice cream manufacturing firm FieldBrook Foods and the Ellington, Conn.-based natural fruit juice manufacturer Natural Country Farms.

In his current role as CEO of Bruegger’s (formerly Bruegger’s Bagels), Greco vivified a tottering national chain of bagel outlets to report 19 quarters of consecutive growth alongside positive same store sales. “I enjoy analyzing a new set of problems,” says Greco, whose track record includes more than 12 years of shepherding food industry turnarounds. “It’s very rewarding to help save a business that is troubled.”

Analysts describe Bruegger’s as a classic case of entrepreneurs—founders Nord Brue and Mike Dressel—with great ideas, who couldn’t build a start-up into an established enterprise. When Greco, with financial aid from Boca Raton, Fla.-based private-equity group Sun Capital Partners, took control of the 250-unit Bruegger’s Enterprises in 2003, the look of the brand was stale, marketing was virtually nonexistent, and the company had reported four consecutive years of negative same store sales.

His 90-day revival strategy began with the removal of “Bagels” from store signs and the introduction of fresh salads to menu offerings for five test stores, along with a new look. The company soon saw a 20 percent to 30 percent bump in sales at the five stores. The new menu items have since been rolled out to the company’s corporate and franchised units. Next, Greco unveiled a new marketing strategy and refurbished all of the company’s bakeries.

Industry analysts argue that the transition of Bruegger’s from a bagel shop to a comprehensive fast-food eatery puts the company in competition with big players like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Corner Bakery Café, Panera Bread and Einstein Noah Restaurant Group. But Greco says Bruegger’s well-located storefronts offer it an advantage over its competitors.

The spruced-up food chain now boasts 290 locations, and a formidable scorecard—an EBITDA compound annual growth rate of 20 percent from 2004 through 2008. The company is already ahead of its targeted 12 percent EBITDA growth for 2009. Revenue, slightly north of $200 million in 2008, is expected to grow 10 percent this year. Headcount has nearly doubled, jumping from 1,300 in 2003 to 2,200.

To drive future growth, Greco plans to concentrate on the catering segment, expanding upon the existing carry-out catering “Meals-to-Go” service program that offers an assortment of Bruegger’s more popular menu offerings, party platters and boxed lunches for pick up or delivery. The company has also expanded its wholesale bagel business, selling to hospitals, hotels and grocery stores, and is now seeking airport bakery shop locations.

Despite the tough economic climate, Greco is optimistic about growth prospects going forward. “In the next five years, I think we will [become a] $450 million-plus business,” he says.

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