Boston Market CEO on Thanksgiving, chain's future in food courts

Thanksgiving is a big day for Boston Market, which every year sells turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes and other dishes for those who don't want to cook.

The rotisserie chicken chain says its sales of heat-and-serve meals for the holiday are up 20 percent from last year. Beyond Thanksgiving, the chain is also back in expansion mode following its bankruptcy filing in 1998 and acquisition by Sun Capital Partners in 2007.

CEO George Michel says he sees potential for 1,500 locations, up from its current 460. One area the company is targeting is food courts, with Michel noting Boston Market can be an attractive alternative to pizza and Chinese fast-food.

Michel — who says he's referred to internally as "The Big Chicken" — is in New York City to work at a Boston Market location on Thanksgiving. He sat down with The Associated Press this week. Excerpts of the interview are below:

Q: Why do you think Boston Market's sales for prepared Thanksgiving meals are up so much?

A: Monday was our best day ever in bookings. It tells you people are waiting longer to place orders.

Part of it is that people are working more. Before, it used to get planned way in advance. Now, they're waiting almost until this week to make the decision.

Q: Does your family cook on Thanksgiving?

A: For the last four years, my wife and I worked in the restaurants.

We like to stay until the end, and we like to usually have a meal at the restaurant. Sometimes the staff wants to linger around and eat with us.

My son is at Emory University. He's going to be celebrating Thanksgiving with 23 other students and they're going to have Boston Market.

Q: What menu changes have you made to reflect changing tastes?

A: We're thinking of using quinoa as a binder instead of bread crumbs in our meatloaf. It's healthier and it allows us to make it gluten-free.

We're looking at rice as well, especially in areas where there are people who prefer rice as a staple, as opposed to mashed potatoes. We tested rice in New Jersey. We had great success with it. We're looking at developing a rice pilaf.

Q: Any other changes?

In late 2011, we added Market Bowls. Our research found younger people and women prefer to eat out of a bowl, without the hassle of having to cut a chicken. It created a whole new customer for us.

Q: How many Boston Market locations do you see room for?

A: The potential is to have 1,500 locations. At its height, we had 1,228 restaurants. The growth was not planned very well.

In 1998, we went into bankruptcy. That's when most of the restaurants closed.

Now we're looking at different ways to grow. Last year, we opened our first restaurant in a food court. We believe food courts are a great place for us to do business. There is no one else who offers our kind of food in a food court.

Q: What about international expansion?

A: We're in discussions for a 50-restaurant development in the Middle East.

We don't have any international locations, but we believe that the future is in birds. Chicken is an international protein eaten everywhere.