Fast Food

Would you like fries (or onion rings or chicken tenders) with that?

Boston Market Gets A Fast Casual Makeover

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[Photo: Carey Jones]

I've been a loyal Boston Market customer for so long, I still call them "Boston Chicken." Throughout most of high school, I dropped in for a half-chicken with three side: mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, and cinnamon apples. I know, not the healthiest fare in the world, but it manages to taste like good, honest food.

The history of Boston Market, though a constant in my life, has been volatile. After it was founded in Newton, MA, in 1985, it saw strong growth in the 90's and an eventual IPO; following an initial rise, stock price plummeted. In 2000, Boston Market was purchased by McDonald's, who sold it to Sun Capital Partners, a buyout private equity firm, in 2007.

It's been a rocky two and a half decades, but as part of its 25th anniversary campaign, Boston Market is giving its restaurants something of a makeover. 370 of their nearly 500 locations will be revamped by the end of 2010, with the stores in the Miami and New York markets leading the charge. Some of the changes are small, some are large. The side orders in the "Hot Case" will be cooked in smaller pots, so the food is prepared more frequently, and less is wasted. They are increasing staff, and will have employees escorting customers to their tables, as well as bussing the tables after they're finished. Finally, and most interestingly, Boston Market is introducing real plates and silverware for dine-in guests—bringing the experience away from the traditional tray-to-table fast-food model.

And with that transformation comes a few changes in the menu. They're adding new sandwiches, four new side dishes (Loaded Mashed Potatoes, Garlicky Lemon Savory Spinach, Squash Casserole, and Mediterranean Green Beans), as well as a range of dipping sauces (Zesty Barbeque, Island Mojo, Sweet Thai Chili Garlic, Frank's Sweet Heat, and Honey Habanero).

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I had a chance to experience the new Boston Market at a press event last week. As far as the food changes, they're small but noticeable. The new pots for side dishes struck me as a logical move: who wants mashed potatoes that look like they've been sitting there for two hours? But the new sides and dipping sauces were something of a mixed bag. The Loaded Mashed Potatoes were my favorite; there's a big hit of bacon, with cheese and chives adding something interesting to the flat-tasting potatoes. The Squash Casserole is buttery and almost too sweet, but easy enough to eat. Their Garlicky Lemon Savoy Spinach is a much lighter and tastier alternative to the creamed spinach, far less thick and goopy, and the Mediterranean Green Beans, while nothing remarkable, add salt and flavor to an otherwise criminally bland preparation.

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The sauces, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired. Nothing wrong with the Zesty Barbeque: standard-issue barbeque sauce, sweet and tangy. The others, however, are inedibly sweet, many of them with a corn-syrup-gelatinous texture, which even a decent amount of spice does nothing to redeem. Let's put it this way: not a single one of these sauces would have improved the standard Boston Market chicken, which, whether you're a fan or not, is certainly well-seasoned and juicy. (But I see why you'd want sauce for their turkey, which, as in so many kitchens, ends up totally bland).

As for the larger changes? The conversion to dinnerware is certainly pragmatic—no more frustration with breaking plastic utensils trying to cut the chicken—and the table service keeps you from struggling with a plate and a large soda sliding around on a tray. The table service bothered me a bit, initially seeming somewhat awkward and even excessive—at times, it's just easier to grab your food at the counter. The Boston Market transformation will make the experience something more like a TGI Friday's or Applebee's, a different world of fast-food restaurant. Is this a smart re-branding for them? It'll be interesting to see.

Either way, it's clear that Boston Market is focusing on customer service; from my experience, while many of the fast food chains offer poor service across the board, Boston Market's has always been a notch better. I'm happy they're trying to attract customers the old-fashioned way—as opposed to putting an "addictive chemical in their chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly."

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