A new lunch menu tested by Boston Market in two markets will be added to the entire fast-casual restaurant chain this summer.

The line of upscale sandwiches, salads, and soups is an effort to enhance the lunch daypart at the company, best known for its rotisserie chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and other dinner-menu items.

Dubbed "What's for Lunch?" the test was launched February 1 in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. At the same time, the chain began evaluating "flavor bars" with salsas and sauces in Columbus and Raleigh, North Carolina, along with several fried food items in Raleigh.

"All of the tests are scoring huge with our consumers and are performing above expectations," says Richard F. Davis, vice president of culinary innovation at Boston Market, based in Golden, Colorado. The new items "fill out our offer and provide variety."

Although the lunch menu will expand to the company's 500-plus locations, the flavor bar and fried foods will remain tests for now. Flour tortillas, part of the flavor-bar endeavor and an alternative to the chain's cornbread offering, also will be available in all units.

Davis says the lunch menu reflects the company's focus on growing its customer base and offering more international flavors.

"Many people just consider us a dinner restaurant," he says while visiting a test unit in suburban Columbus. "We want to provide a compelling lunch offering, as well."

The lunch items will be available all day. Most sandwiches and salads available on the previous menu will remain.

Boston Market is wise to strengthen its lunch daypart, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group, a Chicago–based market research firm. The recession created challenging conditions for convenient dinner restaurants, she says.

"We're seeing tremendous competition from the retail side" as grocers increasingly stock aggressively priced, easy-to-prepare meal items, she says.

At the same time, lunch is a growing business for fast-casual chains. According to NPD statistics, comparable total sales at lunch for fast casuals were up 3 percent in January over the same month in 2009, while the whole restaurant segment was down 3 percent for the same period.

Developing a fresh lunch menu gives Boston Market an opportunity to shift slightly from its heavy-food image, says Eric Giandelone, director of research for foodservice at Mintel, an international research and marketing firm.

"It's viewed as a home-meal replacement place," he says. "Pick up parts for dinner, like a quarter chicken or mac and cheese. Eating that for lunch is considered a bit heavy."

The new lunch items adopt the chain's signature rotisserie chicken, some other existing components, and 22 new ingredients. The expanded menu features a trio of deli-style sandwiches, three freshly tossed salads, and the same number of hot soups.

The Rotisserie Chicken Salad and Rotisserie Chicken Pesto sandwiches both have mesclun greens and balsamic vinaigrette, while the Rotisserie Turkey BLT contains applewood-smoked bacon and Parmesan peppercorn dip. All three are served on thick-cut multigrain deli-style bread from an artisan bakery in Chicago.

“Many people just consider us a dinner restaurant. We want to provide a compelling lunch offering, as well.”

All of the new salads use rotisserie chicken. Rotisserie Chicken Asian combines shredded iceberg and cabbage, wasabi wonton noodles, edamame, and sesame ginger vinaigrette; Mediterranean has mesclun greens, English cucumbers, pita crisps, feta cheese, and sweet garlic vinaigrette; and Southwest Santa Fe includes queso fresco, roasted corn, poblano peppers and black beans, corn tortilla strips, and chipotle cheddar cream vinaigrette.

Rotisserie chicken is also key to the Homestyle Chicken Noodle and Southwest Chicken Tortilla soups. The third soup is Broccoli Cheddar.

The sandwiches are priced around $6, salads $6.59–$6.79, and soups $2.79. Two additional sandwiches and a salad that were part of the test will not be included in the lunch expansion and will be saved for a future menu refresh.

Boston Market's international focus is a key to its flavor bar, tested previously in Denver. Customers can customize their food with fresh salsas—roja, avocado tomatillo, jalapeno escabeche, pesto aioli, pico de gallo, and chimichurri—and commercially bottled sauces.

The fried-food test is another matter altogether, largely because Boston Market has boasted that it doesn't serve those items. In Raleigh, fryers were installed to make chicken tenders, thick-cut fries, and sweet potato fries.

"Frying food is something new for us, but it is not a new idea" says Davis, who hinted that more menu tests, possibly even sliders, are being planned. "After all, the French have been serving pommes frites with roasted chicken for ages."

Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Boston Market