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BRAND IN TROUBLE: BOSTON MARKET GROWS, STUMBLES, RETURNS TO ROOTS

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After a rapid takeoff and ascent, Boston Chicken's Boston Market chain has had its wings clipped.

The chain has slowed expansion, is seeking to buy out its franchisees and is working to stem a sales decline at its 1,189 restaurants.

A new ad campaign created by Suissa Miller, Los Angeles, and carrying the tagline, "The food's always better at the Market," focuses on Boston Market's roots as a provider of home-style meals for time-starved customers. The chain is also expanding a test of a more extensive take-out menu in Charlotte, N.C.

MARKETING MISSTEPS

Restaurant industry observers agree Boston Market is a concept that fills a consumer need, but are waiting to see whether the chain can survive overly rapid growth and marketing missteps that the company admits have hurt sales.

Those missteps included a coupon-driven discounting program, and a new line of sandwiches, Extreme Carvers. The sandwiches veered from the brand's initial, older target audience to take aim at the so-called heavy fast-food user: 18- to 24-year-old men.

Boston Chicken officials did not return calls for this story.

In the hotly competitive restaurant business, the brand has the added pressure of being under constant scrutiny on Wall Street. Its stock has sunk from a high of $41.50 per share last December to below $10 now.

Chain officials declared in Boston Chicken's most recent earnings statement that the worst appears to be over in terms of sales at Boston Market restaurants. For the quarter ended Oct. 5, weekly per-store average sales were $18,507, down 20% from the same period a year ago, according to analysts.

"We saw steady improvement in store sales towards the end of the quarter. This improvement exemplifies the resilience and strength of the Boston Market brand, and indicates that the return to our core home-meal replacement roots and our shift away from heavy discounting are beginning to pay off," Saad Nadhir, co-chairman and CEO of Boston Chicken, said in announcing third-quarter earnings.

Boston Market, with $1.2 billion in sales last year, is the No. 2 fast-food

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