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Can Boston Market’s comfort food mount a comeback in the era of Chipotle?

Boston Market is known for its roasted chickens and Thanksgiving-style side dishes. (Boston Market)
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Decades before fast-casual restaurants were the hottest ticket in the dining industry, Boston Market was serving up its glistening rotisserie chickens in restaurants that were fancier than a fast-food joint but not quite as formal as a sit-down eatery.

But recently, even as fast-casual chains such as Chipotle, Panera Bread and Noodles & Co. have dramatically grown their fleet of stores amid intense customer demand, Boston Market stayed on the sidelines, going seven years without opening a single new store. The brand was stuck in a cautious posture after it had ballooned to 1,143 stores too quickly and had to file for bankruptcy in 1998.  It didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice.

Now, with four years of positive sales growth under its belt, the restaurant known for its roasted chickens and Thanksgiving-style side dishes is quietly expanding again in hopes that it can ride the wave of interest in fast-casual dining and fresh ingredients.

Its growth plans will serve as something of a test of Americans’ changing eating habits: Will comfort foods like creamed spinach and sweet potato casserole prove attractive to a generation of increasingly adventurous diners? Does the crowded fast-casual space have room for more serious competitors?

In 2014, Boston Market opened three stores; it plans to open at least 10 more this year and at least 20 more in 2016. The chain is largely eyeing food court locations and street-facing storefronts in dense areas. While many of its existing 462 restaurants are free-standing buildings with a drive-through window, it is avoiding that format for new restaurants.

“Because we are behaving in the fast-casual space, we want to act like fast-casual,” said George Michel, the company’s chief executive, in an interview.

The company is also trying to adapt its menu to appeal to the tastes of millennial diners. Michel said they’ve noticed customers are looking for “more fire in the food,” and so Boston Market has added a sweet Thai chili garlic sauce and a honey habanero sauce that customers can slather on their chicken. They’re also testing a sriracha chicken dish and a rice dish flavored with saffron to bring new flavors into their all-American offerings.

And at a time many chains are making a big show of their commitment to healthy ingredients, Boston Market has also entered the fray with new TV commercials that tout their “all-natural chicken” that is “free of added hormones and steroids, never fried or frozen.” It’s a move that’s in step with many other fast-casual and quick-service spots: McDonald’s recently said it was moving to serve only chicken that had not been treated with antibiotics. Subway and other chains have announced they are doing away with artificial ingredients.

Boston Market won’t necessarily have an easy path to growth. For starters, its thriving fast-casual rivals are just one prong of its competition. Rotisserie chickens have also become a grocery store staple, and many customers find it’s just as convenient to snap them up at a place where they can also, say, grab some paper towels or a package of baby food.

“Between 4:30 and 6:30, we compete with the supermarkets,” Michel said.

And it seems the restaurant’s low profile in recent years has caused it to fall off many diners’ radar.

“Some of the [challenges] they could really focus on is building awareness,” said Dennis Lombardi, a food industry strategist with WD Partners. “I don’t think Boston Market is as strong in people’s mental phonebook about options as it could be.”

WD Partners recently teamed with trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News to survey thousands of customers about their perception of dozens of chain restaurants.

They found that Boston Market gets higher scores on menu variety than other chicken joints such as El Pollo Loco, Chick-fil-A and Wingstop. But it scores low relative to those peers on food quality and craveability, suggesting it could stand to polish its image.

Also, if brand awareness of Boston Market isn’t especially high, that could speak to another potential challenge: Even if the brand is adding trendy new flavors like sweet Thai chili garlic sauce, that hardly matters if millennials still think of it as a place that serves the kind of meal they get at grandma’s house.

Boston Market’s road to expansion began back in 2011, when the company started making major changes under Michel — an executive who refers to himself as “The Big Chicken” and has the title printed on his business cards.

At that time, Boston Market began trying to pivot more upscale by adding real plates and cutlery to its restaurants and having a worker deliver orders to the tables. The following year, the company added “Market Bowls” to its menu, a portable option that made it easy to eat its meats and sides on the go.

The restaurant is privately held and does not disclose its revenue, but Michel said these measures have lifted sales.

As it plans to deepen its presence in the United States, Boston Market is also weighing whether an international expansion might make sense. Michel noted that fried chicken has been a major hit in Asia, no doubt referring to the dominant position that KFC has achieved in the quick-service dining sector there. The theory is that Boston Market, with its chickens that are roasted instead of fried, could provide a healthier option in a similar flavor profile.