Boston Market revs up catering test

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Chain tries holiday hams, turkeys nationally

Boston Market already sells meals to families. Now it wants to feed crowds, pushing whole hams and turkeys for the holidays and testing a thriving catering service in the Southeast.

The 757-unit chain known for its rotisserie chicken stands to boost average unit sales considerably when it begins selling Hearth Honey Ham and banquet-size side dishes Nov. 5. Stores in Pittsburgh, Orlando and Cleveland also will sell whole turkeys. Boston Market said the nationwide effort will last only through January, but analysts say strong sales could lead to a permanent banquet menu.

Test market results bode well for national rollout. Stores in the same three markets sold hams last Easter, boosting average unit sales roughly 30%, said Alan Hickok, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, Minneapolis.

TV support from J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, will begin in most markets in November, accompanied by in-store materials offering recipes and party planning tips.

Boston Market will offer the first real national competition for the Honey Baked Ham Co., a 265-unit, privately held chain operating in 40 states. The 40-year-old company sells glazed, bone-in ham at $4.99 per pound.

Boston Market's hams are bonless and priced at $5.29 per pound.

Boston Market is the first fast-food chain to heavily market holiday meals, though chains like Subway Sandwiches & Salads and Au Bon Pain Co. have always cultivated year-round catering on a smaller scale. Delivering lunches to office meetings is a profitable side business for Au Bon Pain, with average orders of $75. The 280-unit chain this season will push desserts and coffee for home consumption with its "Take Au Bon Pain home for the holidays" in-store message.

A more ambitious program is unfolding in Boston Market's Southeastern stores, where franchisee Platinum Rotisserie Corp. has built catering into 13% of sales since beginning the service in July. The 38-store test serves as a model for other area developers to adopt, said Mike Reeves, Platinum's marketing director.

The restaurants cater the complete Boston Market menu to picnics, business meetings and 350-person black-tie dinners, Mr. Reeves said. Platinum also provides daily lunch service to 25 elementary schools in Atlanta and Raleigh and Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Catering is a pretty enormous opportunity" for the whole Boston Market system, said Peter Oakes, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, New York. "But it's a little way down the road."

After introducing a slew of new products this year--including ham, meatloaf, turkey and a line of sandwiches--Boston Market will concentrate next year on improving store operations and boosting margins, Mr. Hickok said.

Boston Market plans to put the first TV support behind Boston Carver sandwiches early next year.

Also on the menu for parent Boston Chicken Inc. is a full court press behind Einstein Bros. Bagels, the chain Boston Chicken is backing through its investment in Progressive Bagel.

Progressive Bagel expects to open 275 to 300 Einstein Bros. units by the end of 1996, growth that will challenge 200-unit Bruegger's Bagel Bakery, the biggest chain in the segment. Boston Chicken's Kyle Craig is chairman of Progressive Bagel.

The prototype Einstein Bros. store in Salt Lake City sells espresso drinks, coffee mugs and T-shirts along with bagels.

Copyright October 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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