Boulder-area Old Chicago locations

Boulder: 1102 Pearl St. (first Old Chicago location)

Broomfield: 1280 E. First Ave.

Longmont: 1805 Industrial Circle

Superior: 100 Superior Plaza Way, No. 100

Out with the Old Chicago and in with the new.

Old Chicago Pasta & Pizza, 110 Brews is now Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom.

CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries Inc., which has headquarters in Broomfield and Chattanooga, Tenn., has plunked down roughly $10 million so far into a "refresh" of its Old Chicago restaurant concept, which got its start in Boulder in 1976.

The effort includes a new logo, redesigned interior, new menu and an increased focus on "handcrafted" offerings -- notably craft beer.

The facelift for the 37-year-old chain comes as the casual dining segment continues to lumber along in a slow recovery from the recent recession, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research and consulting firm in the food service industry.

"What we're seeing is a mixed bag of successes and failures in restaurants in a shift in share from one brand to another," he said. "We're not seeing any substantial growth in the industry in the past five years -- still just recovery to the (state at the) start of the recession."

Old Chicago held its ground during that time, but the chain's overall performance has been flat, Tristano said.

"They're not accelerating. They're not improving. They're not on a decline either," he said.

Old Chicago's 96 restaurants, which include company-owned and franchised eateries, reeled in $230 million in revenue last year, according to Technomic data.

Old Chicago's sales were down slightly from previous years. From 2009 to 2011, revenue ranged from $233.6 million to $235 million.

Casual dining restaurants' 2012 sales posted a growth rate at just over 3 percent, and only slightly above inflation, Tristano said.

Old Chicago's changes also come as a sub-segment of "polished casual dining" restaurants had emerged to cater to consumers who remain frugal and discriminating with their spending, he added.

"In order to capture those occasions and those visits, these brands have to update, remodel, revitalize the interior of their restaurants to be more contemporary and position themselves to serve high-quality, more craft-oriented products," Tristano said.

Most concepts do tend to see a "nice return" during the first 12 months after a rebranding, he added. The sustainability of that return is dependent upon the individual concept, he said.

Whether this effort could bolster Old Chicago in the long run is too early to tell, Tristano said.

Growth opportunity

The changes to Old Chicago have been two-and-a-half years in the making and were initiated shortly after the brand landed under the CraftWorks umbrella, said Will Powers, senior marketing manager for the Boulder-bred chain.

The move to CraftWorks came in 2010 when the locally based Rock Bottom Restaurants Inc., which operated restaurants including Old Chicago, ChopHouse and Rock Bottom, grew too constrained financially to continue growing the operation.

Later that year, New York private equity firm Centerbridge Capital Partners L.P. acquired Louisville-based Rock Bottom and Tennessee-based Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group and combined the two as CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries Inc.

Shortly after the pairing of the firms, Centerbridge identified Old Chicago as a viable candidate for investment and expansion, Powers said.

"Because of its popularity and we don't brew on site, it's a lot more efficient from a dollar sense to build an Old Chicago," he said. " ... We felt that there still was a tremendous amount of growth opportunity in the U.S."

Making note that consumers have become more savvy and discerning when it comes to food, Powers said the aim was to help Old Chicago evolve.

After a battery of qualitative and quantitative research, officials landed on 17 initiatives that spanned elements such as construction, marketing, service, beverages and food, he said.

What resulted was a honing in on the heritage of the brand -- pizza and beer -- and an overhaul of the menu with 90 percent new items and all offerings with no preservatives. There also will be increased training for employees and design changes such as installing 36-tap bars and 50-inch flatscreen TVs in the restaurants' bars to serve as electronic beer boards listing the availability of offerings, Powers said.

"We definitely wanted to drive home the craft beer authority and our seriousness when it comes to craft beer," he said.

Brewing boom

Old Chicago's modification also is occurring amid a boom in the craft brewing industry and the rise of nanobreweries and dedicated craft beer bars.

Just over 2,400 breweries -- among them 2,347 craft breweries -- operated for some or all of 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder-based trade association representing the craft beer industry. It's the highest total for breweries since the 1880s.

There also are more than 1,300 craft breweries in the planning stages, the association has said.

The increase in independently operated taphouses and breweries could benefit Old Chicago, Powers said.

"The more people we can educate on craft beer ... the better it will be," he said. "It's going to be very difficult for Old Chicago to compete against an owner-operated (brewery or bar). We're a casual dining establishment with an emphasis on craft beer."

Old Chicago is banking on that combination in furthering a potentially aggressive expansion in its future store plans and franchising operations.

The brand currently has 58 corporate locations and 38 franchise-operated locations. About 75 percent of them have received the remodel.

The current concept, Powers said, could allow the restaurant chain to get to 300 locations in three to five years or 500 in seven to 10 years.

Seen as the growth vehicle, Old Chicago was the first out of the gate for CraftWorks' refurbishment plans. Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch remodels are in the beta testing stages, Powers said.

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or wallacea@dailycamera.com.