Capital Grille; Chain Profile, October 2010

Strictly enforcing processes for food preparation and production influences equipment selection for this high-end steakhouse concept.

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The open kitchen’s pass-through window at Wall Street is characteristic of the front of the other restaurants’ open kitchens. The custom-designed center-island cooking suite behind the window is unique to this location. Photo by Cathy Salamone, www.directdigitalphoto.com

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Employees at all Capital Grille restaurants carry thermometers in their uniform shirt pockets, a practice seen in contemporary and sanitation- and safety-conscious restaurants. They also carry rulers so they can ensure the uniform size of each section of asparagus and the other fresh, local, artisanal menu ingredients they cut and inspect. This kind of precision and dedication to process helps this high-end steakhouse concept maintain high quality standards and consistent execution across all of its locations in 20 states.

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This attention to detail goes far beyond food preparation. It extends throughout all facets of the business, including customer service and the selection of foodservice equipment. FE&S had the rare opportunity to observe the back-of-house and front-of-house operations and to interview top executives, unit partners and staff about their successes and challenges in keeping this well-oiled machine at the top of its game.

The first Capital Grille location opened in Providence, R.I., in 1990. Darden Restaurants acquired the concept as part of its $1.9 billion purchase of RARE Hospitality in 2007. Since its inception, Capital Grille has been a high-end yet comfortable destination featuring dry-aged steaks and fresh seafood. The restaurant concept also features a comprehensive liquor program with a wine list that ranges from 300 to 1,000 bottles and various specialty cocktails at each location.

Among Capital Grille's newest restaurant locations are three in New York City, one in Los Angeles and another in Costa Mesa, Calif. Guests at each restaurant enter into an environment richly appointed with mahogany wood, brass fixtures, oil paintings of landscapes and portraits of famous local personalities, plush carpeting and burgundy leather seats. To keep the service of glass and china silent, the tables feature padding and faux leather.

A full-service bar holds a prominent position near the entrance. An open kitchen, in all but one unit, sits at one side of each restaurant. An overhead frame displays clocks set to show various international times. An eagle sculpture positioned in front of the cooking battery or over the bar is part of the design package.

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A private dining room in the Capital Grille’s Time-Life Building location features a portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted, a prolific landscape architect of the 19th century who designed Central Park, Niagara Falls and Yosemite. Photo courtesy of Capital Grille; photography by Warren Jagger

"Each unit's dining and kitchen configuration differs depending on its location," says Brian Foye, Capital Grille's senior vice president of operations. Foye joined Capital Grille in 1997 and held positions as director of training and corporate executive chef before taking his current position. "We want to maximize the utilization of space."

Many newer units contain seating on the main floor and mezzanine levels. The display kitchen is on the main level, while the storage and prep areas tend to reside on a lower or mezzanine level. "The way each room in a restaurant is configured contributes to the guests' experience," Foye says. "Lively open kitchens create a lot of energy."

Nearly all of the chain's open kitchens, feature conventionally straight cooklines. In some instances the space won't allow for such a setup. As a result these locations use an island suite for their cooklines.

Regardless of the configuration, each restaurant's equipment package is basically the same. "We make everything from scratch, including our ice cream, which is one point of differentiation from some of our competitors," Foye explains. "We must select equipment to handle this type of preparation."

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On the lower level, Greg Power, prep/broiler cook, inspects the broiler. The entire cooking battery shown can serve as backup for the battery on the level above and for preparing meals for guests in the private vault rooms, also on this level in the restaurant’s Wall Street location. Photo by Cathy Salamone, www.directdigitalphoto.com

Reliability, durability, ease of cleaning and maintenance and, more recently, energy efficiency are also crucial factors in equipment selection. In fact, the concept's spec for vertical broilers — often referred to as the workhorses — that can turn out as many as 200 steaks per day, was recently changed and will be installed in new restaurants. The previous units did not meet Capital Grille's needs for temperature control and energy efficiency.

In addition to vertical broilers for sizzling steaks and ovens on top of the broilers for cooking shrimp, Capital Grille's equipment package also contains char grills for chicken and swordfish; sauté ranges for pasta dishes such as lobster macaroni and cheese, as well as pan-seared calamari; and flattops for fresh fish such as seared citrus-glazed king salmon, and lobster and crab cakes. Steamers heat lobster, crab and vegetables such as asparagus and spinach.

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The elegance of the freestanding location at the Beverly Center in California is apparent in the exterior’s architecture and signage.

The fact that water quality differs from location to location and often requires a filtration system means that steamers can require additional maintenance to keep them operating properly, Foye says. "If steamers go down, we can put pots of water on the stove, but it obviously isn't ideal."

In addition, each restaurant has at least one double-basket fryer for the very small number of fried items such as the signature calamari appetizer and parmesan-truffle fries.

For cold preparation of seafood, wedge and chopped salads, and vegetables, each Capital Grille location has many worktables, sinks and a slicer. A refrigerated butcher room allows cooks to cut meat, which is kept in a designated walk-in cooler during the aging process. The cooler is equipped with a dehumidifier to help maintain the proper environment for dry-aging.

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The building housing the Wall Street Capital Grille contains the original five-foot-thick bank vault. This floor contains one 12-seat dining room and one 10-seat private dining room. JP Connolly, managing partner of this restaurant, says this location has been very “fortunate” with its customer traffic and acceptance by the Wall Street community. Photo courtesy of Capital Grille; photography by Warren Jagger

New types of equipment are not added often, but when Jim Nuetzi, a 12-year employee of the Capital Grille and its corporate chef for the last 10 years, finds something that he feels will improve operations without compromising quality, it is brought into the test kitchen at Darden's headquarters facility in Orlando. "When we are thinking about a new piece of equipment, we will run it through the ringer for at least a month before deciding to add it to our equipment package," Nuetzi says.

To assist staff in adhering to sanitation and safety standards, a blast chiller was added to the equipment package two years ago. "We have ample refrigeration, but never as much as I'd like," Nuetzi says. "We started using this equipment because the ordinances in Stamford, Conn., required it. We liked it so much that all new restaurants since have one. It not only helps us be more efficient with production of sauces, some seafood and blanched vegetables because of the speed of chilling food, but we can keep track of the product's chilling cycle. This helps me sleep at night knowing we have more control over food temperature." In addition all Capital Grille's walk-in refrigerators have timers and alarms that alert staff when a door is open too long or when the temperature of the unit is out of a food-safe range.

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On the lower level, Joseph Boyer, executive chef of the soon-to-open Paramus, N.J., location, who is in training with Jason Miller, executive chef partner at the Wall Street location, cuts tuna for the day’s menu.
Photo by Cathy Salamone, www.directdigitalphoto.com

In the bakery, staff use a floor mixer and worktable to make desserts such as flourless chocolate espresso cake, cheesecake with fresh seasonal berries, coconut cream pie and biscotti served with ice cream made on the premises.

As Capital Grille continues to expand, Foye, Nuetzi and other discerning partners will continue to evaluate their existing equipment and examine new equipment to be certain it stands up to the need for operational precision. The test to get a passing grade is very tough — but so is maintaining a competitive position in today's economic climate.

Facts of Note
Opened: The first restaurant opened in 1990. During the past year, Capital Grille opened two locations in New York City and two in California, one at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles and one in Costa Mesa.

  • Headquarters: Orlando, Fla.
  • Units: 41 in 20 states
  • Size: 6,600 square feet to 17,000 square feet; about 30 percent is kitchen space.
  • Seats: 225 on average
  • Average Check: $35, lunch; $80, dinner
  • Total Annual Sales: $242 million, fiscal year 2010
  • Transactions: 2,000 guests per week on average
  • Company Owned: All
  • Hours: Open for lunch and dinner; hours vary by location.
  • Menu Specialties: Dry-aged steaks and fresh seafood
  • Staff: 80 to 100 per unit on average

Key Players

  • Owner: Darden Restaurants, Inc.
  • President, Capital Grille: John Martin
  • Senior Vice President, Operations, Capital Grille: Brian J. Foye
  • VP of Marketing, Capital Grille: Evelyn Moore
  • Corporate Executive Chef: Jim Nuetzi
  • Managing Partners: Melissa Trumbull, Time-Life Building; JP Connolly, Wall Street; Gina Doyle, Beverly Center; Gina Doyle, Costa Mesa, Calif.
  • Executive Chef Partners: Peter Menard, Time-Life; Jason Miller, Wall Street; Dana Dare, Beverly Center; Derek Venutolo, Costa Mesa, Calif.
  • Interior Design: Peter Niemitz Design, Boston
  • www.thecapitalgrille.com
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