In December of 2007, the United States experienced one of the worst economic downturns in history with the burst of the housing market. Dubbed ‘The Great Recession,’ the financial crisis saw the American unemployment rate climb as high as 10 percent and slashed small businesses’ access to credit.
While many proprietors were looking to exit ownership in pursuit of something more stable, one family knew it had the tools and the people necessary to navigate their restaurant through the lean times.
The Bull Run Restaurant, located in north central Massachusetts, has been in Alison Tocci’s family ever since her father, Leonardo Guercio, bought the tavern in the 1940’s after immigrating from Sicily. It was the first stop on the Boston-to-Albany Stagecoach route in the 1800s and legend has it the tavern’s name was born out of a bar brawl in the Tap Room. The Bull Run’s location at the time - close to Boston, yet away from the city - also made it a common meeting spot for politicians and celebrities to come eat and drink. As a successful restaurant with a long history, complete with a 300-seat supper theater, Bull Run was eventually passed down to Alison’s older brother after her father’s passing.
Unfortunately, after seven decades of prosperity, Bull Run also fell victim to the Great Recession.
"My brother had the tavern listed for sale at one point," says Alison. "He called all of our family members to let us know. My husband, George, and I felt with our combined background in marketing and music, we could give it a shot."
Reluctant to see the Bull Run in the hands of a stranger and eager to realize the tavern’s untapped potential, Alison and her husband worked out a transition plan to leave New York and officially became owners of the Shirley-based restaurant.
The Tocci’s consulted a number of resources for first-time buyers to determine an appropriate sale price for the transfer of the restaurant. Alison considered factors like location, revenue and the struggling economy to initiate negotiations with her brother. With both parties invested in keeping the restaurant and its surrounding eight acres of land in the family, they settled on a sale price lower than market value but including past debt.
Breathing life back into a struggling establishment starts with a revitalization plan
The Tocci’s first day of business as new restaurant owners was New Year’s Eve of 2009, and they haven’t looked back since. Today, the Bull Run restaurant employs over 70 people (up from 20 or so in 2009) including Alison’s brother, several nieces, nephews and cousins.
After declining profits under $1 million leading up to the sale, the restaurant now pulls in revenues of approximately $4 million annually.
Much of the restaurant’s current success can be traced back to what Alison calls her ‘Revitalization Plan.’
"We knew we would have to do more than fix the tavern’s physical attributes," says Alison, "and the theme in my head was the long, local history of our place. Research showed that the local food movement was strong in Boston and western Massachusetts, but we were among a few pioneers in our part of the state. So we brought in a new chef and joined the growing farm-to-table movement."
Supporting the local community was a top priority for the new Bull Run owners — instead of purely buying organic or from the cheapest vendor, Alison focused on sourcing as much produce, dairy, fish and meat as possible from farmers and purveyors within a 100-mile radius, with a priority on central Massachusetts.
The Tocci’s also recognized the value in updating the historic tavern. Housed in a centuries old building, certain aspects of the Bull Run restaurant still resembled that first stop along the Boston stagecoach route. Alison worked to find the right mixture of history and modern amenities. While the Tocci’s refurbished certain aspects like the guest restrooms, lighting and sound systems, they made sure to maintain as much of the original building as possible because it provided a unique, rustic charm. The couple uncovered many surprises during renovation, including a stash of extra wide pine floor boards made for the original tavern, and a tree handle axe and nails that date from the 1800s. In addition to sprucing up the physical attributes, George Tocci applied his previous experience in booking live performances to bring in a diverse set of musical acts that would appeal to new customers.
The plan turned into a rousing success and today, Alison looks back on those times with a few key tips to other owners who may be looking to jumpstart their business.
- Conduct thorough market research. It took a lot to convince banks to supply small business loans during or immediately after a recession, so buyers must be prepared to explain why they are a good investment. Alison’s market evaluation, for example, revealed a demand for live music in the central Massachusetts region that Bull Run could satisfy given George’s background in booking entertainment gigs. The Bull Run regularly hosts both aspiring and internationally acclaimed performers on a regular basis. A 2018 lineup includes Aaron Neville, Gilbert Gottfried and Lee Ann Womack to name a few.
- Develop a succession plan. It’s never too late to think about the future, and the same holds true for proprietors of successful businesses. With market conditions subject to change on a dime, the Tocci’s have already begun developing transition plans for the Bull Run when it’s time to exit ownership. Keeping the restaurant in the family is a top priority, so Alison has already begun mentoring and training her nephew who expressed interest in taking over the family tavern.
- Give back to the local community. "One of the biggest things I underestimated was how much the community was rooting for us to succeed," says Alison of the local community. Recognizing the role of the tavern in this area’s history, the Bull Run family has made it a point to participate, serve and volunteer in as many town events and local organizations as possible. In order to stay connected to their customers and to show thanks for the support they received over the past seven decades, the Bull Run supports events and activities that directly impact the town of Shirley and surrounding areas.
Guided by a revitalization plan and a motivation to keep the tavern within the family, Alison and George Tocci were able to navigate one of the worst recessions in history and bring a beloved community establishment back to life. With a refurbished building, new musical acts and a farm-to-table mentality, the Tocci’s are continuing the Bull Run tradition of serving tired and thirsty travelers along the Great Road for over seven decades.