Randy Miller, Boston Market’s new president, has been with the chain long enough to remember what things were like in 1998.
Back then, the fast-casual had more than 1,200 units—but 1998 was also the year it filed for bankruptcy and shuttered hundreds of stores, after a push for international growth sent it into debt. Two years later, McDonald’s bought the homestyle concept, before selling it in 2007 to Sun Capital Partners.
Now, Boston Market has a new owner. Pennsylvania-based Engage Brands LLC, headed by real estate investor Jignesh Pandya, bought the struggling chain a month ago.
The Boston Market of today looks very different than it did 22 years ago. The Golden, Colo.-based company currently has just over 300 open units, with plans to get up to about 320 open locations in coming days as it reopens some stores shuttered amid the coronavirus crisis. Last summer, it closed 45 stores—then about 10% of its total restaurants.
“We have restaurants we closed in March that we’re going to reopen and get people rehired,” Miller said. “That was one of the things Jay [Pandya] talked about, wanting to save 6,000 jobs and turn this iconic brand around. He has talked about growing the brand up to 400 restaurants and even more.”
Pandya, who did not respond to repeated Restaurant Business requests to comment, has a history as a restaurant franchisee, as well as a diverse portfolio of business interests.
In 2017, Pandya was the largest Yum Brands franchise holder, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. He owned a number of Pizza Hut, Dunkin’, and Checkers and Rally’s units throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
Late last year, his Philadelphia-based Pandya Restaurant Growth Brands acquired Brazilian quick-service fried chicken concept HNT Chicken, with plans to open 40 to 50 of the restaurants by this spring, according to media reports.
The CEO of HNT Chicken is Ronak Pandya, Jay Pandya’s son. Ronak Pandya was 19 at the time of the acquisition. Google currently lists four HNT Chicken units in the Philadelphia area.
The elder Pandya is also behind a years-old push to start a professional cricket league in the U.S.
But Pandya’s league has been tied up in legal action, with a U.S. District Court judge dismissing an antitrust lawsuit filed by Pandya’s American Cricket Premier League in March, according to media reports.
As far as Boston Market’s turnaround, Pandya has been hands on since the acquisition, Miller said.
“He is very focused on our company right now because we are in this transition time period,” he said. “It’s been nice to have his support in these days. He joined us in Colorado a couple of weeks ago. He’s coming out again next week. From day one when I spoke with him, I knew he was very, very passionate about our brand. He thinks as I do that Boston Market is an iconic brand in the industry. We’ve had years of not having full capital resources, of not being able to take care of our restaurants the way we want.”
Among the immediate upgrades: Plans are in the works for an update to the chain’s antiquated POS system. Store remodels are slated. And a menu revamp is in the works, with a focus on freshness.
“Instead of having items sitting on a hot case, evaporating, with the new system we’re testing, it puts those things in a more traditional restaurant environment,” he said.
So, Boston Market is testing whether some items can be made to order, such as freshly buttered sweet corn, rather than relying on cafeteria-style serving from the hot case.
Miller, who joined the company in 1994 before becoming general counsel in 2000, is now out touring stores, talking with employees and looking for ways to improve the chain. Eric Wyatt, who had served as CEO after Frances Allen stepped down earlier this year, returns to his post as COO. Miller becomes the company’s fourth CEO in about two years.
The chain is now looking at returning to its roots of smaller-footprint stores, with less of a dine-in focus, Miller said.
Pre-pandemic, dine-in made up 25% to 30% of sales, he said. About 40% of stores have drive-thrus currently.
“That fits well with how the consumer is using restaurants today,” he said. “So, the consumer can get in and out.”