Lane Cardwell has one of the toughest jobs in the restaurant business: trying to revive Boston Market. The once-highflying rotisserie chicken chain and pioneer in home meal replacement continues to shrink nine years after emerging from Chapter 11 reorganization and seven years of ownership by McDonald's.
Along with other recession-weary chains, its same-store sales have tumbled double digits in the past year. But Cardwell, 57, a former Brinker International senior executive (Chili's, Maggiano's) and former CEO of Eatzi's Market & Bakery, came out of retirement in June, because he believes he can make Boston Market fly again.
He tells USA TODAY marketing reporter Bruce Horovitz that he's even thinking about rejiggering the familiar hot-food format.
Q: Boston Market sounds about as contemporary as Bob's Big Boy. Can you fix that?
A: You're probably right about our image. We have to fix the way people view us. In a lot of markets, we're just a part of the sea of places you drive by but don't stop at. It wasn't that way when Boston Market was one of the most-talked-about (restaurant) concepts. It's hard to put the genie back in the bottle, but certainly we can polish the bottle.
A: We can carry forward the vision that founder Scott Beck had when he changed the name from Boston Chicken to Boston Market. The name was supposed to connote a small convenience market where people could go buy meals. It's been in a financial coma for years. We're trying to … pick up where we left off and live up to the name "market."
Q: Even McDonald's couldn't fix Boston Market. Don't you have nerve thinking you can?
A: I have an important advantage. I ran a similar home meal replacement chain, Eatzi's. … It had (problems due to) poor site selection, but one thing Eatzi's never lacked was an enthusiastic customer.
Q: But Boston Market filed Chapter 11.
A: Boston Market's current model is limiting. Folks only come to us when they want to eat right now. Our goal is to see if there's a bigger market for giving people control of their time by also selling the same food chilled.
People don't like to bring hot food home and heat it up hours later. But they don't mind bringing chilled food home and heating it.
Q: Some say Boston Market invented home meal replacement. Can you get it back?
A: Boston Chicken actually coined the term "home meal replacement." In the 1990s, I attended a conference where they had a seminar teaching grocers how to "Boston Market-ize" your food.
The restaurant industry has done a bad job studying the grocery industry, but the grocery industry has done an excellent job studying us. They call it restaurant meal replacement. It's time to return the favor.
Q: Boston Market considered evolving into almost a convenience store that also would sell staples such as milk and eggs. Is this still alive?
A: No. We'll be much more focused. We need to dial up our visual merchandising. If you go into Whole Foods and walk around the prepared foods, you're tempted to buy more than you want or need.
That's because of how they display it. … The store needs to look like it's all about food.
We want people to walk in and smile when they see the food.
Q: What's Boston Market's biggest problem?