CEO plans to make Boston Market chain fly again

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.

Q: How?

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?

A: People forget about us. We had a much bigger marketing budget in the past. We've had to close stores and even (exit) entire markets. Every time you see a store close, it makes people wonder if you're still in business. They don't realize you're in other parts of the city.

Q: What's the best way to get people to think of Boston Market?

A: You have to come up with big ideas to let people know you're out there. We're introducing a "Two Kids Eat Free" program. Sure, we're in it to help ourselves, but we're also helping others. A single parent with two kids can buy a meal for six bucks, and they get two kids' meals free.

We may only break even on that, but it may be the only chance the family has to go out to eat that month. The only requirement is that you spend six bucks and bring both kids (14 and under) with you.

This is a huge, untapped market. Some 31% of households with kids are single-parent households.

Most kids-eat-free programs are not designed for them. They only give one free kids' meal for each adult-paid meal.

Q: What else new is coming?

A: We're about to begin a test program in one store where, instead of waiting … for your food to be assembled, you sit down and have it brought to you. We plan to bring the hot case back into the kitchen which is more like the … model used by Panera Bread and Chipotle.

Right now, we can only give you the hot food you see in front of you. That buys us a few minutes to work magic back in the kitchen. The food quality will hold up a lot better.

Q: Any signs of the recession easing?

A: No. Following the Fourth of July, the whole industry reset downward. … It's not going to get better until people quit reading about people losing jobs.

Q: You were early in $5 meals. Plan more?

A: Five dollars is a magic price. But it's not the $5 that's important, it's what you feel you got for the $5. Five bucks for a whole meal, not just a sandwich and chips, is a good deal. We have 11 offerings now, but only one-third sell well. We're going to go back and see which ones folks really see as a good deal.

Q: Any supersecret new products on tap?

A: We need to make sure that we do a better job on the products that we already have.

For what it's worth, we're still the rotisserie chicken king. We sell more … than anyone else in the business.

Q: Why did you take this difficult job?

A: I was part of an investor group that tried to buy Boston Market (from McDonald's). It was No. 1 on our list. But Sun (Capital Partners) ended up with it.

When they called me out of the blue, I couldn't believe my good luck. It took me two minutes to say, 'Yes' and to relocate (to Denver) from the city I'd lived in (Dallas) for the past 39 years. This is the last restaurant company I will work for.

Q: They say you eat out a lot.

A: I eat in 600 restaurants a year.

Q: What's the magic ingredient in Boston Market's creamed spinach?

A: Asiago cheese. You can print it — but don't tell anyone else.

Q: Anything else I didn't ask that you shouldn't talk about?

A: I feel like I just went to my internist and did blood and EKG tests. I've got a dozen second thoughts — but no retractions.