NEW YORK -- Just when supermarket retailers had become accustomed to quick-serve restaurant chain Boston Market grabbing a hunk of their business, another home meal replacement chicken is emerging ready to start pecking away at the margins.
And this chicken is undergoing a growth spurt. Koo Koo Roo, a small, California-based chain, in mid-October entered its third new market in recent months with the opening of a new unit, its 26th, in the Bayside section of Queens, New York City.
The company also recently entered the San Francisco and Denver markets with stores in Menlo Park, Calif., and Cherry Creek, Colo.
Koo Koo Roo's poultry-heavy menu emphasizes freshly prepared foods: skinless broiled chicken marinated in vegetable juices, roast turkey, herb and garlic rotisserie chicken, made-to-order tossed salads, specialty sandwiches, and 24 hot and cold side dishes, including four types of potatoes, three types of pasta, stuffing, cracked wheat rice, pureed butternut squash and steamed vegetables.
In addition, menus promote three sizes of family chicken meals -- which vary in price from $4.65 to $6.95 per person -- priced at $13.95, $18.95 and $25.95.
Koo Koo Roo officials did not respond to interview requests, but a visit to the company's newest unit revealed clues to a strategy with similarities to Boston Market.
Prices at Koo Koo Roo's restaurants are generally comparable to or slightly higher than those at Boston Market, and the format is also much the same, emphasizing both take-home and sit-down dining.
But service, setting and quality, at least at the Bayside store, indicated the company aims for a slightly higher profile. The outlet sprang up on a commercial strip with heavy auto and rail commuter pedestrian traffic.
Spacious, comfortable and bright, the Bayside Koo Koo Roo is wrapped with tall windows and covered in white tiles throughout, with a booth and table capacity totaling about 100.
Customers at the unit approached the service counter by first passing an appetizing and well-lit carving station where one of the store's many toque-wearing cooks, neatly dressed in restaurant whites, sliced into a still-hot bird. The turkey carvery jutted out slightly into the store.
At the opposite end of the service counter, another cook at a branded "Vegetable Stand" prepared one of seven tossed-to-order salads behind a display of fresh vegetables configured to resemble a roadside farm stand.
As at Boston Market's newly revised format, which SN reported on in the Oct. 21 issue, customers at the Bayside Koo Koo Roo ordered their meals at one of two cash registers, located at the center of the service line between a cold case and a larger hot case, both filled with side dishes, and then served themselves beverages. But at Koo Koo Roo, customers can wait at one of the tables until the number on their receipt is called over a public address system, indicating their order is ready.
And signalling an attempt to separate themselves from other quick-serve restaurant formats, Koo Koo Roo serves its meals with metal rather than plastic cutlery, and with a sealed wet wipe towel.
Behind the cash registers, a dozen or more cooks worked at grill, rotisserie and oven stations. When a freshly roasted turkey was pulled from the oven, employees called out "Hot turkey, hot turkey" and a cook hustled the still-steaming bird to the carvery. Predictably, this touch of showmanship caught the attention of many of the guests who waited in line and filled the house during the location's trial run pre-opening.
While the seating area is larger than those at most quick-serve operations, the back-of-house is about the size of an average deli operation in a large supermarket.
At present, the operator is small by QSR standards. Koo Koo Roo officials plan to open an additional four or five stores by the end of 1996, bringing the total number of domestic stores to about 30.