PLYMOUTH — When Al Carvelli recently dismantled the Upper Crust sign outside his pizza shop here, the former franchisee felt a sense of relief.
Carvelli bought the store in 2010 with plans to have fun and make money at the popular gourmet pizza chain that had rapidly expanded across the region. But tough economic times and bad publicity from accusations that Upper Crust executives exploited workers at other stores had the opposite effect.
So after years of painful sales declines, Carvelli has parted ways with Upper Crust, which filed for bankruptcy protection in October following mounting financial problems, labor troubles, and disputes among its partners. He is joined by Mark Tramontana, another former Upper Crust franchisee who shut down his Portsmouth restaurant earlier this year and recently terminated his relationship with the company for the Newburyport location. The sole remaining franchisee in West Roxbury would not confirm whether it planned to continue working with Upper Crust.
“This gives me freedom to bring in more business without being tied to Upper Crust,” said Carvelli, 70, during an interview at his Plymouth restaurant, which he is rebranding as “Top Crust” and expanding the menu to include wraps, subs, and desserts.
“I’m just trying to make it work,” said Carvelli, who also sold a former Upper Crust location in Hingham that he bought at auction after realizing he needed to focus on a turnaround at the Plymouth shop.
Upper Crust founder Jordan Tobins, who owns the franchising rights and company name, along with restaurants in Brookline and Beacon Hill, did not return messages seeking comment. Tobins has kept a low profile since working with a private equity firm to purchase several upper Crust stores at the bankruptcy auction and re-open locations in the South End, Watertown, Lexington, and Wellesley.
Tramontana said Sunday was bittersweet — that’s when he took down the Upper Crust signs at his Newburyport restaurant. After opening in 2008, he said, Upper Crust was a franchisee’s dream: a fast-growing business with instant brand recognition that won awards for its gourmet pizzas delivered by bicycle around Boston.
But in the summer of 2010, as Tramontana made a deal to open a second location in Portsmouth, N.H., a lawsuit was filed by former Brazilian workers at stores in the Boston area accusing Upper Crust of exploiting employees. More damaging allegations were reported in a December 2010 investigation published by the Globe that revealed immigrant laborers from a poor village in Brazil were underpaid for long work weeks while owners indulged in luxuries such as a yacht and a plane. Federal labor officials eventually ordered the pizza chain to pay workers about $350,000 in overtime, but company executives then allegedly came up with a plan to take the money back by slashing wages, resulting in a class-action lawsuit and another labor investigation.
Soon, people began questioning Tramontana’s business practices in Newburyport and Portsmouth. He received hate mail. His employees faced the wrath of some customers. Tramontana said he did his best to explain he was a franchisee — and even put up signs with a photo of his family that described the shop as “independently owned and operated.”
“When you buy into a franchise, you’re buying into a brand image and goodwill, and you assume things are going to be good if not better moving forward,” Tramontana said. “You never expect this to happen.”
Despite sliding sales, the franchisees stuck by Upper Crust and refused to criticize the owners, even as they feuded and charged each other with misusing corporate funds. But that changed last fall after the company sold thousands of discount vouchers on Groupon without the franchisees’ knowledge, kept the proceeds, and then filed for bankruptcy protection.
By then, Tramontana had plans underway to separate from Upper Crust. He knew the bad publicity wasn’t going away anytime soon. If anything, it might get more intense — the class action filed by former workers is scheduled to go to trial this summer.
“I needed the ability to control our brand, our image, our destiny,” he said.
So on Sunday night, after celebrating his son’s birthday, Tramontana got rid of the Upper Crust logos, signs, and menus. He renamed the pizzas after his three children and local landmarks, and lowered the prices on everything from pies to sodas.
Tuesday was the first day in business under the restaurant’s new name: Anchor Stone Deck Pizza.
“Given the volatility over the last few years, I thought anchor was appropriate because it imparts strength and stability. And when you are home, you drop anchor,” said Tramontana, who lives in Newburyport. “It’s also a symbol of hope. We are hopeful for our future.”Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.