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There was a time in the 1990s when more than 1,100 Boston Market restaurants dotted the country—long before "fast casual" became a household term.
Now, the privately held chain—known for its home style meals and rotisserie chicken—operates with a much smaller footprint of 456 locations. Its multi-year retrenchment is about to change with its first planned expansion in years.
"We believe that we are ready to expand and to start strategically to look at new markets, … and the results so far of the ones we've opened and the reaction have been very good," CEO George Michel told CNBC in an interview.
Other metrics have shown signs of progress. The chain's average restaurant volumes increased from about $1 million in 2010 to $1.3 million last year.
Same-restaurant sales, a key industry indicator, have also shown strength in recent years. Although they rose just 0.1 percent last year, they jumped for the three years prior, rising 9.3 percent in 2013, 7 percent in 2012 and 5.8 percent the previous year.
Adding ribs to the menus, focusing on value, improving customer service and refurbishing restaurants helped drive sales during this period.
Still, a harsh winter dented sales at the beginning of last year, as it did with many other restaurant chains, Michel said.
The chain plans to concentrate growth on several key markets, including New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and Philadelphia. Michel estimates the chain will add six to eight net new restaurants this year. It plans to open 20 others next year.
After filing for bankruptcy protection in 1998 following a rapid expansion, Boston Market has plenty of reasons to approach growth cautiously.
"When you expand fast, you tend to make mistakes for the sake of expansion," Michel said. "We are very careful now about studying every location and putting it through metrics and research to make sure that we have the right demographics," he said. Those criteria include "the right [location] profile but also the right structure as far as the investment, the rent, occupancy costs so that everything comes together."
Moving forward, the chain is ramping up scrutiny of its ingredients to evaluate artificial additives that could be harmful, or become a "hot point" for health-conscious customers.
It is also examining just how versatile the rotisserie can be. Currently, the device is a staple in cooking Boston Market's poultry.
"I believe that could be a great unique positioning for us to become a rotisserie kitchen place, where our core products are all cooked on the rotisserie," Michel said.