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Bravo Brio’s new Coastal concept features lighter fare, smaller restaurants |

Bravo Brio’s new Coastal concept features lighter fare, smaller restaurants

After almost 25 years of white-tablecloth, pasta-heavy restaurants, Bravo Brio Restaurant Group is lightening up.


Columbus-based Bravo Brio is experimenting with an updated concept called Coastal Bar and Kitchen.

The concept focuses less on heavy Italian staples such as lasagna — though you’ll still find it on the menu — and more on smaller plates, shareable appetizers and lighter fare. Gone are the white tablecloths and window curtains. Diners will find bigger bars and brighter colors in the generally smaller restaurants.

The first opened in the Los Angeles suburb of Florence, California, last year, and the company has since remodeled a store in Charlotte, North Carolina, and opened one in Akron with the new look and menu this week. Two more are to open this summer: one in Cleveland and the other in Sarasota, Florida.

“We really felt like the brands needed to evolve,” said Brian O’Malley, CEO at Bravo Brio, “and after we opened the one in California, we felt like maybe we should have done this a long time ago.”

The changes could come to Bravos and Brios around central Ohio next year, but for now, the company is going to see how the new concept works in the handful of markets hosting the new restaurants.

“It’s a good experiment to try,” said Dennis Lombardi, principal of Insight Dynamics, a food-service consultant. “By building a couple of these, they will find out quickly if it resonates with consumers.”

In addition to new menu items, the new stores will feature the addition of colorful dinnerware and the removal of the “Roman ruins” look of broken arches and columns. 

The “coastal” part of the new name refers to the Mediterranean Sea, the areas of southern Italy that touch it and the lighter fare of that region. Small plates on the lunch menu, for example, include buffalo cauliflower and avocado toast. The dinner menu includes a Brussels sprout salad and grilled salmon with kale, farro and beets.

Despite the name, the concept doesn’t represent a shift toward seafood but toward a lighter, more casual environment, O’Malley said.

The smaller size of the restaurants also plays into the more relaxed feel. “We shrunk the size of the properties down because we want it to feel more intimate,” he said.

The company needs a hit. Sales and earnings at Bravo Brio have fallen in the past few years as traffic at its restaurants decreased. The company attracted an activist investor last year, Donald Adam, who has been vocal in his disappointment with management. Shares of Bravo Brio’s stock are trading at half of their 52-week high, and last month, the company defaulted on its credit agreement.

The company recorded a $73 million loss in its fourth quarter and a slim profit in its first quarter; it plans to close six stores.

Although there is plenty to be concerned about at Bravo Brio, it’s encouraging that the company is pursuing improvements in its stores via a new concept, Lombardi said.

“I like that they are trying it,” he said. “It is on trend.”

The Northern Italian cuisine that dominates the standard Bravo and Brio restaurants is heavy on pasta and sauces. It isn’t passe but is in oversupply, in Lombardi’s view.

“Classic Italian is well-represented in the marketplace,” he said, “and not just chains, but so many independents.

“For them to differentiate with something lighter, I think it is a good experiment.”

O’Malley thinks the remodeled store in Akron, which opened on Monday with the Coastal Bar and Kitchen look, might be where the concept proves its worth.

“If we can get this to work in Akron, Ohio,” he said, “we’re in good shape.”

 

jmalone@dispatch.com

@j_d_malone

 

 

 

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