By now you’ve heard the news that McDonald’s has sold off Boston Market, the 630-unit chain that pioneered home meal replacement with its roast chicken and sides menu. Apparently, the concept was not so profitable. Annual sales were about $600 million, but operating profit was less than $5 million. Originally called Boston Chicken when it was created in 1985, the concept was a runaway hit, but it ran out of steam in 1998, when the company filed for bankruptcy. Most restaurant analysts said it grew too quickly (1,143 units at its peak). McDonald’s, which was looking to diversify its business, came along in 2000 and bought Boston Market for $173.5 million. As part of its diversification plan, it also bought all or part of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Donato’s Pizza and Fazoli’s. McDonald’s has since ended its relationship with all those brands.
I raise the issue of Boston Market because it’s a concept that should have succeeded as much today as it did back in the 1990s. Yet, McDonald’s could not make it work. More than ever, people are turning to restaurant meals because of busy schedules. The Boston Market idea of packaging up those meals so families could eat at home appears rock solid, but no such luck.
I can only give you my personal opinion on the subject, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Can we agree that the chain’s comfort food menu is pretty good? No brand has ever done roast chicken better, and its sides are decent as well. Its price points are higher than most quick-service restaurants, but $6.99 for a half chicken, two sides and cornbread is a fair deal for a meal far more nutritional than most. Family meals hover around the $20 mark; again, a fair deal. The stores themselves are a big drawback. Perhaps because Boston Market offers traditional and, dare I say, old-fashioned meals, it attracts a considerably older crowd. Every time I’ve been in a store, there are almost always 50-year-old-plus customers dining there, and a clear majority of them appear to be retirees. It’s the kind of environment that scares off younger customers.
Maybe the traditional menu does, too. A standard meal for kids is a sandwich, a slice of pizza or a burrito. Sitting down with a knife and fork and eating off a plate is nearly foreign to them. Sadly, a roast chicken meal is something many young kids never grew up on because their mothers can’t cook. But it’s for this reason the Boston Market concept came into being and it’s why it should work.
Sun Capital Partners bought the chain from McDonald’s, though the tems of the purchase have not been disclosed. It must have a plan for Boston Market to fullfill its promise, but what do you think?
Photograph by Roger Mastroianni