Anthony Ackil says he has brought back the original recipes since taking over management of the Upper Crust pizzeria chain last year.
But now Ackil is moving the business in a new direction — by adding fried chicken to the mix.
Ackil is so proud of his chicken sandwich, he has put it in the chain’s new tagline, “pizza and chicken.” (The chicken menu includes wings and tenders.) He added fryolators at locations in Brookline, Cambridge, the South End, and Lexington. The original spot in Beacon Hill will soon have one, too, as will the Upper Crust he is about to open in North Andover. The chain’s website was updated Monday to reflect the new tagline.
“We’re renovating all the restaurants, rebranding all the restaurants,” Ackil said. “We improved a lot of things over the last 18 months. We think it’s ready to be reintroduced.”
Ackil’s interest in Upper Crust goes back to his 20s, when he was a regular customer of the South End spot. It was the early 2000s, and Ackil and his childhood friend Jon Olinto were just launching their own fast-casual chain, B.Good.
By the time Ackil stepped down as CEO at B.Good in 2018 to go out on his own, it had at least 70 locations. Ackil said he has since sold all his equity in B.Good as well.
Ackil’s next act was to become a restaurant consultant by launching Streetlight Ventures. Streetlight also branched into restaurant management and ownership, through Streetlight Capital Management, with the help of partners Paul Twohig, Eric Holstein, and Mitchell Kahn. Streetlight took over management of Upper Crust last year, by becoming a 50-50 investor with private equity firm Quabbin Capital.
Upper Crust ran into trouble under previous owner Jordan Tobins, including a federal investigation that uncovered extensive violations of minimum wage and overtime laws about a decade ago. (Tobins is no longer involved.) Ackil said he has a different perspective on how to compensate employees — even if that means raising prices at some point.
“The restaurant industry as a whole has to have a little bit of a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment,” Ackil said. “If we don’t, people will keep leaving the industry. I’m in the camp that we have to raise wages. We have to make it a living wage. We have to change how we think about the business.”
Gala season is back. But smaller.
While the first gala season since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is finally underway, things are definitely not back to normal yet.
But people are still happy to have an excuse to try on their fancy clothes again — even if it means wearing a mask, eating outside, or gathering in a smaller crowd.
Among them: corporate financiers Ward Mooney, Kevin Murtagh, Cheryl Carner, Ken Frieze, and Kevin Vercauteren. They launched what they hoped would be an annual tradition in 2018, bringing the corporate finance community together to benefit More Than Words, a nonprofit led by Jodi Rosenbaum that teaches entrepreneurial skills to city teens in its South End and Waltham bookstores and with its online shop.
In 2018 and 2019, about 500 people attended the event. But the group scaled things back for its return in 2021, on Oct. 7 at the InterContinental Boston hotel. About 150 people came; the food was casual, not a sit-down meal, and outdoors.
Murtagh, a lawyer who cochairs Riemer & Braunstein’s commercial finance practice, estimates the group raised about $295,000.
“We were a little worried that because of COVID, we were going to lose that momentum, but … people were so hungry to meet in person,” Murtagh said.
“Many of us hadn’t seen each other for a long time,” added Mooney, a financial entrepreneur. “The energy this year was electric. ... People were high-fiving all night long.”
Missing the chicken dinner circuit
The story was similar the following Wednesday at the Seaport Hotel, where the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and its chief executive Danna Mauch held their annual awards ceremony and fund-raising gala. (Donations totaled about $350,000.) The crowd was limited to 200, to keep the tables spaced apart.
MAMH honored Governor Charlie Baker, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Senate President Karen Spilka, and House Speaker Ron Mariano for their public service during the pandemic. Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Marjorie Decker were praised for their mental health advocacy at the State House. The three main vaccine providers in the US — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — were recognized via video. And NBC10 Boston anchor JC Monahan gave a riveting speech about her struggles with depression, which she first described at length in a Boston magazine article earlier this year.
Communications strategist Joe Baerlein, a board member at MAMH, presented an award to Kyle Grimes, president and general manager of WCVB-TV, to honor the station’s work on mental health issues.
As he gave the award, Baerlein remarked how these chicken dinners used to be commonplace for most people in the room. After more than 18 months away, he said, it sure felt good to be back.
“Has it ever felt any better to eat chicken in a hotel?” Baerlein said. “I was just telling my tablemates how … damn good this one tastes.”
When you love your product ...
If Niren Chaudhary is not Panera Bread’s biggest customer, he’s probably up there.
Yes he’s the CEO. But with Chaudhary, you get the sense that his passion for Panera — and its chipotle chicken avocado melt, in particular — goes beyond his professional obligations.
After all, he’s written songs about his beloved fast-casual chain, such as ditties about the coffee subscription program and flatbread pizza. He sang a few to a crowd of Boston University students and faculty members on Friday, as part of a visit with BU’s School of Hospitality Administration.
He also gave a vibrant recounting of his career, which started in the hotel industry in India. He moved into quick-serve restaurants in 1994 when Yum Brands hired him to help expand the company’s holdings ― they include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell — in that country.
JAB Holding Co. recruited Chaudhary to join the management team at the company’s Krispy Kreme chain in 2017. He became CEO of Panera in 2019 after it was bought by JAB.
Chaudhary said it was intimidating to take over for longtime Panera chief Ron Shaich.
“People must be thinking, ‘Who’s this guy? He’s done fried chicken, fried pizza, fried doughnuts. Is he the natural choice for Panera Bread?” Chaudhary said.
Just when Chaudhary said he was getting his footing in the job, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Panera pivoted to focus more on mobile sales and takeout as a result, and simplified its menu a bit. JAB also folded the Caribou Coffee, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Bruegger’s Bagels chains under Chaudhary’s purview. (Chaudhary and other local Panera executives are working remotely now, but will eventually occupy an office in West Newton.)
Usually when he goes out to eat with his wife, he said, he suggests Panera. He doesn’t always win.
“It’s a brand I’ve loved and admired,” Chaudhary said. “I eat it every single day. I could eat it twice a day if my wife would let me.”