Friday, December 8, 2023

All 7 CT Boston Market locations served eviction notices as company’s ‘death spiral’ closes Newington, Bristol stores

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With almost all of its Connecticut restaurants abruptly closing in recent months, the Boston Market’s once-powerful operation in the state appears to be falling victim to the same financial troubles dogging the chain nationally.

Boston Market has been evicted from its West Hartford, Danbury, Stratford, Meriden, Wilton and East Haven locations this year, and a Superior Court judge last week ordered it out of its Old Greenwich storefront.

The company was hit last week with an eviction notice for its Meriden restaurant, where an employee said Wednesday that it probably wouldn’t be open beyond Friday. In Bloomfield, the chain was evicted a year ago and the building owner is courting a bank that would remodel the space.

The recently closed Bristol location has a “space available” sign on its window, and the Newington location is shut down: A state tax department notice on the door advises that its sales and use tax permit was suspended Nov. 9.

The chain’s collapse in Connecticut mirrors the national pattern that the trade magazine Restaurant Business labeled “a death spiral,” with the corporation adrift in lawsuits from suppliers and employees, penalties for missed tax payments and most recently news of a federal investigation into unpaid wages.

The Colorado-based chain did not reply to email messages this week seeking comment, and the phone number listed for its corporate offices produced a recorded message: “You have reached a number that is not set up to receive calls.”

In Connecticut, several attorneys representing Boston Market’s various commercial landlords said that isn’t surprising. They said they rarely if ever have seen a situation like Boston Market’s: In nearly a dozen eviction cases in the state, it has never filed responses. No attorney came forward to represent it, not even to ask for a delay in the proceedings. Instead, the company essentially conceded; judges in each case filed summary decisions in favor of the landlord.

The trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News profiled the company’s nationwide implosion in an August article, writing “Boston Market’s Denver headquarters have been seized by local authorities and many of the company’s locations are closing, have been abandoned, or have been forced to stock their stores with supermarket food as vendor contracts run out.”

The final weeks at the West Hartford store were notable for deteriorating conditions: In one late-summer visit, it appeared the air conditioning wasn’t working and that some menu items weren’t available. A single worker carried trays of food from the kitchen to the display shelves, then took orders and ran the cash register. The soda dispenser was out of service; the store could sell only warm bottles of soda.

That was a long way to fall for a chain that once had 15 or more thriving locations across the state.

The vacant Bristol Boston Market in November. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)

When the company began in Massachusetts as Boston Chicken in 1985, its menu offerings were distinct — and uncommonly healthy — for the fast-food market.

Rotisserie chicken was always the star, along with comfort food side dishes such as mashed potatoes and cornbread, but the company transitioned to the Boston Market brand in the ’90s by branching out with turkey and meatloaf and even experimented with fish entrees for a while. Most notable were the relatively healthful sides such as steamed vegetables, green beans, sweet corn, items unimaginable in many standard burger, taco or pizza places.

The chain built a fleet of more than a dozen Connecticut outlets during the 1990s, typically leasing small stand-alone locations near shopping plazas or other high-traffic areas.

Business grew as Boston Market promoted takeout items, particularly its heat-and-serve holiday meals billed as full-scale feasts at affordable prices and requiring minimal work.

The “complete Thanksgiving meal for 12″ in 2017, for instance, was priced at $119.99 and included a whole roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry walnut relish, cinnamon apples and dinner rolls. The appetizer was spinach artichoke dip with crackers, and dessert was two pies: One apple, one pumpkin.”

The closed Boston Market in Bristol. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)
The closed Boston Market in Bristol. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)

The chain also tried catering delivery as well as pickup of pre-ordered catering for large parties or holiday meals, briefly experimented with having its staffers deliver orders to tables, and banked heavily on specialty sandwiches to build market share.

But Boston Market was hit by troubles over the years, undergoing bankruptcy in 1998. McDonald’s bought the company in 2000 and ran it for seven years, but then sold to Sun Capital Partners, a private equity firm. When Boston Market opened a Hialeah, Fla. location in 2013, it was billed as its first new restaurant in 13 years.

Overall, the chain hit a high of more than 1,000 locations, but dwindled to just 300 last year.

Sun Capital sold the chain in 2020 to Engage Brands, a unit of real estate investor Jignesh Pandya’s Rohan Group. Pandya at the time took an optimistic view, proclaiming in a statement “I am thrilled to be a part of such an iconic brand as Boston Market, a truly great American restaurant chain with a high quality and delicious menu. I look forward to working with and being a resource for the Boston Market team, preserving the jobs of our more than 5,500 team members, and helping set the brand on solid footing for the future.”

Because of the setbacks that eat-in dining sustained during the pandemic, Pandya steered the company toward a heavier emphasis on takeout. It even added about 40 new stores in 2020 and 2021, most of which were half the size of the usual Boston Market outlets and didn’t have dining rooms.

By 2022, however, financial troubles emerged, and appeared to hit catastrophic levels this year. U.S. Foods, a food supplier, is suing for more than $11.5 million, the biggest of several dozen lawsuits from suppliers, employees, food distributors and other creditors.

Signs are still up but the serving trays are empty at the Bristol Boston Market, which has been shut down for weeks. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)
Signs are still up but the serving trays are empty at the Bristol Boston Market, which has been shut down for weeks. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)

Six months ago, Colorado’s state tax department cited unpaid wages and taxes when it briefly seized the Boston Market’s corporate headquarters, a three-story building in an office park in the town of Golden. The company resolved that, but three months later New Jersey’s labor department shut down 27 Boston Market locations because of $630,000 in unpaid wages to more than 300 employees.

Boston Market paid that bill and was allowed to reopen, but this month Restaurant Business broke a story that the U.S. Department of Labor has begun investigating the chain over allegations of late or illegally withheld wages across the country.

Eviction notices for unpaid rents hit rapidly across the country this summer. Locations in San Francisco and Fresno, California; Rochester and Long Island, N.Y.; and Howell and Tom’s River, N.J. all had to shut down when landlords won eviction orders in court.

In Connecticut court filings, numerous commercial property owners said Boston Market simply stopped paying rent and now owes hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was being evicted from its location along the Berlin Turnpike in Newington when the state Department of Revenue Services posted a notice advising “No sales can be conducted” on its entry door; the agency said it would not give any details about the case.

A state Department of Revenue Services notice on the Newington Boston Market doorway. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)
A state Department of Revenue Services notice on the Newington Boston Market doorway. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)

Nearly all of the chain’s outlets in the state date back to at least the early 1990s, and rents at most were ranging around $4,000 to $5,000 this year, according to court documents. Between back rent, fines and attorneys fees, owners say Boston Market owes $29,384 for its West Hartford location, $80,982 in Danbury, $149,326 in Bloomfield, and more than $449,000 in Fairfield.

The company’s website no longer gives a list of locations, but shows a map still indicating seven stores operating in Connecticut even though all seven have been served with eviction notices.

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