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Broken Wing

Boston Market was supposed to be the McDonald's of the '90s. So why did the home-meal-replacement pioneer end up laying an egg?

From the time its rotisserie first turned, Boston Chicken had people salivating. Soccer moms, working singles and families nationwide flocked to the stores to buy this healthy alternative to fried chicken. Wall Street investors ate up Boston Chicken, too, buying its stock at ever-increasing prices. By 1993, 10 years after the company started, franchises were hatching across the country at breakneck speed. With the restaurant chain's name changed to Boston Market, company officials and many industry publications predicted a rosy future.

But within five years, the Chicken had been fried.

On October 5, Boston Market entered bankruptcy court to file for Chapter 11 reorganization; the closing of 178 locations soon followed. Franchise purchasers were plucked, profits were down, and the company could not get out from under its debt.

Franchise and restaurant industry experts cite a number of reasons for the fall, but most lay the blame at the feet of a franchising system that pushed overly rapid expansion while ignoring same-store sales. Those same experts say most business owners-especially those involved with franchises-can learn some lessons from what happened to Boston Market.

Solid Concept

Boston Market's supporters and critics generally agree on one thing: Its food is good.

"I happen to be a good customer of Boston Market," says David Kaufmann, a franchising consultant and attorney with New York City law firm Kaufmann, Feiner, Yamin, Gilden and Robbins, whose clients include the holding companies for Arby's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. "I knew the franchise program was terribly flawed, but my family and I still eat there."

Boston Market hung its hat on whole rotisserie chickens, with side dishes such as mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. Marketing teams latched onto the phrase "home meal replacement," selling it as something healthy you would be proud to serve at the family dinner table. The company sold itself as the dominant force in a category that was well on its way to being the norm for most people dining out in the '90s.

After profits started to sag, the company added a line of sandwiches. Some critics contend that action hurt more than it helped because it diluted what Boston Market was about. Company officials expected the "Boston Carver" line of sandwiches to help restore sagging profits in 1997, but, by their own admission, that plan didn't work as well as they'd hoped.

So while the quality of its food was rarely an issue, the quality of Boston Market's franchising program was.

Kurt Helin is the editor of two weekly newspapers in Long Beach, California, and the former editor of Inland Empire Business Journal.

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This article was originally published in the February 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Broken Wing.

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