Boston Market Is Entering the Chicken Sandwich War

June 6, 2016, 2:32 PM UTC
Courtesy of Boston Market

For over 30 years, Boston Market has carved out a niche in the restaurant world as a purveyor of rotisserie chickens. It may ruffle a few feathers with its next menu innovation: A new lineup of crispy chicken meals.

The Colorado-based restaurant chain, with over 450 locations nationally, on Monday said the company’s new limited time offering would focus on a new chicken line that could be found in sandwiches, wraps and salads. The chicken is baked, rather than fried, as Boston Market believes health-conscious consumers are trying to stay away from fried foods.

“We wanted to really look at other ways consumers eat chicken,” Boston Market CEO George Michel told Fortune. “If you look at brands that have done well in the last 10 years with chicken, they focus on breaded chicken sandwiches and chicken tenders. We decided we needed to look at those trends.”

Most notably, Shake Shack (SHAK) has scored a hit with a new chicken sandwich that generated a lot of buzz and even gave the chain a bigger-than-expected sales boost in the most recent quarter. The Chick’n Shack has been viewed as a “game changer” by that chain.

Boston Market says its own launch in the category could be equally revolutionary. The chain specializes in mainly selling dishes that are meant to replace a full, sit-down meal. Selling chicken sandwiches are a conscious departure from that strategy, helping expand the menu in both flavor profile and consumption format.

Michel says he was an early convert. After tasting the first chicken sandwich, he said he “couldn’t stop eating it.” Michel took home two sandwiches and ate them for dinner that night.

“That led me to think, ‘We are on the right track,'” he said.

A note of caution: the chain’s chicken sandwich debut is entering a bit of a “down market.” Servings of breaded chicken sandwiches at restaurants dropped 2.5% for the year-ending in April 2016 and slipped 2.2% in 2015, according to research firm The NPD Group. Still, 2.3 billion breaded chicken sandwiches are ordered annually, so the market is massive.

International expansion

Boston Market on Monday also announced it will move to expand abroad, opening dozens of locations in the Middle East under a franchise agreement with Al-Ghunaim Trading Co., which already works with Chili’s, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and other dining chains. Boston Market, which is planning it open 12 new restaurants in the U.S. this year, is targeting a first restaurant opening abroad in Kuwait by early 2017.

The chain only made one other attempt at expansion abroad, testing the concept in Australia and Canada briefly back when McDonald’s (MCD) owned the brand. After McDonald’s opted to sell the business, they closed those locations.

But with sales on the rise in the U.S., up about 36% over the past five years, the company felt like it was finally in a good financial position to hunt for growth abroad.

“Going to the Middle East gives us a good entry point into other international markets,” said Michel. The plan is to focus on that region, as Boston Market wouldn’t disclose its longer-term international expansion strategy.

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