As once-booming Boston Market dwindles, a trickle of customers get nostalgic

NEWARK, Del. - From the window of the last Boston Market still open in the state of Delaware, a slightly askew sign casts a weak light into the sunshine outside. “Open,” it reads in red LED letters.

The location anchors the northwest corner of a shopping center with an Acme supermarket on one end and a row of faded restaurants and a nail salon on another. And it might catch your eye if you’re driving past on Route 273 in Newark, maybe on your way to the nearby Christiana Mall or the University of Delaware campus across town. Nearly everyone, though, drives past it.

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This is what the end of an era looks like.

Boston Market was a booming brand back in the mid-1990s, a pioneer of what we now know as the fast-casual landscape. It existed in a space diners were just realizing they wanted to be in, somewhere between the greasy burgers of fast-food drive-throughs and the sit-down production of an evening out at the Olive Garden or Bennigan’s.

People flocked to its homey meals; its signature rotisserie chickens seemed fresh, even healthful, in that era of SnackWell’s cookies and Healthy Choice frozen dinners. After being founded in 1985 as Boston Chicken, it eventually expanded to more than 1,200 locations well beyond its namesake city. Now, only a few dozen remain; a report this month by the trade publication Restaurant Business put the number at 27, with more closures expected at every moment.

Inside the Newark location, the black metal chairs around faux wood-grain tables sit empty. Two high chairs stand like bored sentinels guarding the vacant space.

That “Open” sign is plugged into an extension cord that snakes its way behind the soda fountain, which is out of order: Customers who want a soda have to fetch a can out of a mini refrigerator. (They are also out of pot pies and all the desserts.) Only a handful of people pass through the sliding glass door on a recent Thursday. There’s only one manager working, and she’s gone back into the kitchen.

It’s perfectly quiet except for a soft mechanical whir of kitchen equipment. And while the sides - pans of mac and cheese, creamed spinach, and mashed potatoes - sit on a heated rack behind the counter, the only things that move are eight plump chickens, rotating on a spit.

Most of the folks who shuffle in and out, holding bags stuffed with quarter chickens and plastic foam containers bulging with side dishes, don’t know about the corporate drama behind the chain’s demise. Some customers here saw signs that things were amiss.

Fred Grinnage, who sports a woolly beard and heavy work boots, is getting ready to head to his job driving a forklift. His shift ends at midnight, and he’s stopped by to pick up dinner, which he plans to eat during his break at 5:30. He used to go to Newark’s other Boston Market, about five miles east, but it’s closed now. This one’s a little out of his way, but it’s worth it. It’s going to be a cold night in the cab of the forklift, and he’s looking for comfort food. “It’s like a home-cooked meal,” he says. “It’s good, it’s fresh.”

He surveys the scene and shrugs. “I hope they can make it,” he says, but he doesn’t sound optimistic.

A while later, Sharon Adamson comes in. She’s in town from North Carolina for a business meeting - she’s in construction, she says. She grew up going to Boston Markets, but back home, “now they’re all boarded up.”

When she spotted an open Boston Market near her Airbnb, she knew where she was eating. “We don’t have any there anymore, so I wanted to get it while I could,” she said. She planned to take her meal - a half chicken with creamed spinach and mac and cheese - back to her rental. “Just going to eat and relax.”

The manager, a woman named Gloria who doesn’t want to share her last name, says she made the food fresh this morning. In some locations, according to reports, workers are resorting to shopping at local grocery stores themselves for ingredients to make the dishes - and even the signature rotisserie chicken - since supplies stopped coming in. Gloria’s usually a one-woman show on her daytime shift, cooking and scrubbing floors and ringing up orders. That morning, she says, she was lucky enough to have had a dishwasher come in for a few hours to help clean.

It’s difficult to say whether the quality of the food has slipped unless you’re a regular visitor. But on a recent visit, the creamed spinach - a dish that many people recall fondly from the chain’s heyday - mashed potatoes, and mac and cheese were all underseasoned. The spuds were thick and starchy. Even the chicken, which looked nicely bronzed, tasted as if it hadn’t even once been within range of a salt shaker.

How things came to this sad end is a story with as many turns as a rotisserie spit. The proximate COD seems to be its current management, a company called the Rohan Group that bought the chain cheaply from a private equity firm in 2020. Jay Pandya, the Rohan Group’s owner, was a franchisee at chains including Pizza Hut and Checkers who had a history of being sued.

Pandya promised to turn the brand’s fortunes around and open new stores. Instead, locations around the country began shuttering by the dozens, with landlords claiming unpaid rent and a fresh barrage of lawsuits and investigations over overdue bills and wages.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts labor officials fined the chain for late payments to employees; last year, New Jersey issued a stop-work order for 27 locations over failure to pay workers. After the company paid $630,000 in back wages, they were allowed to reopen in the state, though it isn’t clear how many actually did. Boston Market’s Colorado headquarters was seized. The biggest blow came in the form of a lawsuit from supplier U.S. Foods over unpaid bills in which a judge in January ordered Boston Market to pay $15 million.

Attempts to reach Pandya and the Rohan Group were unsuccessful; several phone numbers associated with the company seemed to be disconnected. Emails sent to several publicly available addresses bounced back.

Even with a handful of locations hanging on, industry experts are sounding the death knell for Boston Market.

Restaurant analyst Aaron Allen says many of the brand’s problems predated its change of ownership. “It’s not the death of a thousand cuts, but many things contributed,” he said.

For one, he said, after distinguishing itself in the 1990s as a cut above fast food, it attempted to compete with those brands by holding its costs down - a move that ultimately led to a reduction in quality, which only undercut it further. “If you chase a lower price-point consumer you can price yourself out of business,” Allen says.

Grocery stores, too, ate Boston Market’s lunch as they began adding rotisserie chickens to their expanding prepared-meal aisles. Essentially, Boston Market became a victim of its own success. After helping to popularize the roasted, whole chickens - in some cases, introducing the concept to consumers - the chain eventually saw the likes of Costco serve up the same things, for far cheaper.

It’s hard to imagine a time when rotisserie chickens weren’t ubiquitous, but looking back at news stories from the early to mid-1990s reminds us that, for a brief moment, they seemed, if not exactly chic, at least new - and exactly what diners were clamoring for. Headlines called them “the answer to dinner dilemma” and “a new spin on fast food.” “Everyone’s flocking to join the rotisserie chicken revolution,” the Chicago Tribune declared in 1994. Chains such as Kenny Rogers Roasters, Clucker’s and Muhammad Ali Rotisserie Chicken spread around the country, while KFC debuted its own spinoff called Rotisserie Gold. Boston Chicken, which changed its name in 1995, led the way.

Eventually, though, the chain’s all-American, homestyle fare, often served in family-size portions, fell out of step with tastes. Diners were drawn to ultra-customizable bowls at Chipotle and the varied menu at Panera Bread, two leaders in the market now infiltrated by chains offering healthier options and global flavors, such as Sweetgreen and Cava. In Newark, within a mile or two of the Boston Market, customers can find avocado-topped burgers and craft beer at Red Robin, or adobo chicken bowls at Qdoba.

Modern customers are more fickle than they’ve ever been, too, Allen notes. That creates a challenge for all brands, but legacy ones in particular. Diners today have a restless mind-set influenced by our experiences with consumer technology. After all, our iPhones get an upgrade every 20 months, so we come to expect that other things we spend money on should constantly evolve and modernize, too. “These days, the consumer gets tired a lot faster,” Allen says.

The few customers still coming to the Newark Boston Market, though, don’t seem to be chasing something novel.

Take Rashard Gibson, a DoorDasher who waits by the counter in a black hoodie and stocking hat. He usually delivers about five lunches a day, but dinner is when things really pick up. He doesn’t often get orders from Boston Market. Usually, people want Taco Bell or McDonald’s, maybe a pizza. Chick-fil-A is huge. “Everybody wants Chick-fil-A,” he says. He had almost forgotten about this neglected outpost, but his visit has him feeling nostalgic.

Growing up in New York, Friday nights meant home movies and Boston Market takeout with his mother. She would order different things, but his order was always the same: a quarter chicken with mashed potatoes and corn, which he would cut up and mash together. “It was always just the two of us,” he says, smiling at the memory. There used to be long lines, he recalls as he looks around the empty dining room. “Not like now.”

Tonight, he says, after he finishes his deliveries, he’s coming back for dinner for himself. And he knows exactly what he’ll be ordering.

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