The solution: leverage the esteem the Papa Gino's name still enjoyed, strengthen the menu and bring in some advertising people who understood good food and good ads.
That formula seems to be working for Papa Gino's, which has seen sales increase by 8% since late spring, when it began a TV, print and point-of-sale campaign assembled by the Seattle office of Salt Lake City-based EvansGroup. Papa Gino's sales last year were in excess of $135 million.
Three 30-second TV spots are at the core of the still-running campaign, each emphasizing service or menu choices while using some common visuals of Papa Gino's handmade pizza dough and other eye-appealing images.
The first, aimed at positioning Papa Gino's as a place for lunch as fast as fast-food but of higher quality, features four lunch items. The second spot shows portraits of pizza on an art gallery wall as "Italian masterpieces" that could be eaten. The third and most wry of the trio shows Hollywood film clips of Roman chariot races and Venetian gondolas to emphasize Papa Gino's delivery service.
Bob Taft, who joined Papa Gino's as president in November after five years with Skippers, a Bellevue, Wash.-based seafood chain, said the campaign is an example of textbook marketing: emphasizing the restaurant's strengths while differentiating it from the competition.
Papa Gino's chief asset was its place in the Boston area as a longtime favorite, having been founded some 35 years ago and now having 180 restaurants between Boston and Providence, R.I. It also could draw on a tradition of good food, with many menu items based on family recipes used by founder Mike Valerio.
But in recent years market share had dropped from 45% to 34% among Italian restaurants in their service area, and Papa Gino's disliked an advertising campaign from Houston, Effler & Partners, Boston, last year that seemed to mock a stereotypical Italian woman. Sales also failed to rise.
At the same time, competition was increasing after PepsiCo's Pizza Hut chain purchased a Boston area line of sandwich shops and began to convert the shops to pizzerias.
Mr. Taft knew of EvansGroup's work through the agency's ads for Skipper's and Starbuck's, brought the Seattle office on board in February and charged it with rebuilding brand esteem for the chain.
"We really wanted to be able to leverage our position as having fast Italian food, and we wanted to show in our commercials the quality that goes into our food products," he said.
Dennis Miller, EvansGroup's chief operating officer for the Seattle office, said what was needed was clear to his team. Market research Papa Gino's had done showed the restaurants were still regarded as one of the premier places around Boston for Italian food.
"The entire campaign is based on a simple premise: Papa Gino's is the place to go when you want genuine Italian food served quickly," said Mr. Miller.
Although managing a $7 million ad effort from the opposite side of the nation may seem awkward, the relationship between EvansGroup and Papa Gino's has worked well.
EvansGroup has an account supervisor in Boston and installed an online system that can transmit copy, artwork and storyboards instantly from Seattle to Boston.