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Boston Market aims to prove 'fast food' can be healthy too

The fast-casual restaurant business is booming, from Chipotle to Shake Shack and everything in-between.

But critics say what's missing from many of the menus at these restaurants? Healthy options. A recent breakdown of Chipotle's menu by the New York Times found the average order has 1,070 calories, 2,400 milligrams of sodium, and 75 percent of the daily recommended intake of saturated fat.

But George Michel, CEO of Boston Market, hopes to change that. He calls himself “The Big Chicken” and while at the helm of Boston Market, he has also rolled out a nutritional program, aiming to reduce sodium levels and the calories of the chain's most popular meals. The company says it’s created more than 150 meals under 550 calories. Boston Market has also created a nutritional calculator that allows customers to manage and control their in-take.

But the main focus is lower sodium. “We’ve put a stake in the ground to reduce sodium,” says Michel. Boston Market has cut sodium by 20 percent in it signature rotisserie chicken. The sodium level of the gravy has been cut by one-half.

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Across the menu, he says, “we have been able to hit targets of 15% and we have a number of other products we are working on so that we can continue to reduce sodium in our food.”

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day.  Most Americans consumer far more, ingesting on average around 3,500 milligrams per day. (There is a debate in the scientific community over what level of sodium is appropriate. Revised guidelines from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion are expected to be released this fall).

In 2012, Boston Market removed salt shakers from tables in its restaurants. The goal? People don’t just grab the salt shaker to add salt to the food, Michel says, because it “already had the right amount of salt in it.” For those who still want the salt shaker at Boston Market, you can still get it at the counter; but it’s not readily accessible.

How did that go over with customers? “We have had a few complaints but also we’ve gotten a lot of compliments from people saying kudos to you that you’ve done that, that you’ve taken a stand. And made it harder for me to just grab the salt shaker.”

But it’s not just about cutting sodium, it’s about serving up fresh, delicious food, says Michel. “We stand out because not too many people serve rotisserie chicken,” says Michel. “We don’t hold our chicken longer than an hour and a half in the restaurants whereas sometime the super markets who would be a competitor of ours but you don’t know how long the food has been sitting on the counter.”

Michel says the company has always used antibiotic-free and hormone-free chicken. “Our chicken is natural. We also bring it in fresh. It’s not frozen and we cook it from a fresh stage in our restaurants.”

Founded as fresh alternative to fast food in 1985, the company was originally called Boston Chicken.  Boston Chicken became Boston Market in 1995, the menu today goes far beyond fresh chicken. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1998 but was purchased by McDonald’s for $173.5 million in 2000.

Sun Capital Partners owns Boston Market today. The Boca Raton, Florida-based private-equity firm bought Boston Market from McDonald’s in 2007.

Michel took the helm as CEO in 2010.

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