Do chicken and ribs go together like steak and lobster? Boston Market’s two years of research and tests show they just might. The chain will launch St. Louis Ribs at all 471 of its restaurants today, starting an eight-week experiment that’s likely to become a permanent menu addition, if previous tests in Buffalo, Norfolk and Baltimore are any indication, said CEO George Michel.
The fast-casual chain will sell a quarter rack of spare ribs with two sides and cornbread for $10.99, and it will promote the spare ribs with a multichannel ad campaign set to break next week and a promotion tied into tax day on April 15.
The new menu items come nearly three years after Boston Market began a turnaround effort aimed at raising the level of service and introducing higher-end touches including china and silverware into the fast-casual concept. Now, the chain says, it’s the only fast-casual concept in the country to pair rotisserie chicken and ribs.
“We wanted to broaden the appeal of Boston Market, to attract new guests, and we thought ribs would do that,” Michel said in an interview Friday . Customer research and then two small-scale tests led to the Jan. 1 Baltimore launch. “Customers love it, they said ‘yeah that’s the right choice at a Boston Market.’ They voted with their wallets. It all came together and we decided that the time has come for us to launch ribs.”
The chain recently saw 30 consecutive months of same-store sales growth that it attributes to the turnaround efforts, and it’s also celebrating the groundbreaking on its first new store in six years, in Hialeah, Fla.
“We’re ready now to start building new restaurants,” Michel said. “We’re also looking at opening in non-traditional locations like airports and university campuses.”
The new Florida store will be a traditional space, very much reminiscent of the familiar Boston Market stores with some updated features, including Wi-Fi, an updated color palette, changes to the front counter to display more of the food and allow guests to watch their salads and sandwiches being made, and a new dining room setup that will include a community table, booths and three high-top tables.
More from Michel:
On healthy dining and the question of kids meals
It’s always been that customers pick Boston Market because it’s healthier than QSRs. Moms bring their families because you can custom design your meal and focus on healthier products. We have [several] that are 550 calories or less, and another attraction of Boston Market is the fact we have different side orders and salads as well. Our restaurants don’t have fryers, everything is rotisserie or baked.
On menu prices, commodity prices and the Affordable Care Act
We had a slight increase on Jan. 1, prices went up 1.6% to make up for some of the commodity cost increases, but some of the commodities have stabilized at this point. Certainly not beef, but the majority of our product is poultry. Corn prices have stabilized so we don’t anticipate there will be as much pressure, and we do not expect will raise prices again in 2013.
As for the Affordable Care Act, we don’t anticipate any changes at this time. We have a combination of full-time and part-time people that’s the right mix for us. We continue to look for ways to contain our costs. The biggest impact of our 30 months of comp growth is that we had to go out and hire employees. We have close to 10,000 employees now.