The 24-inch charbroiler with natural gas radiant broilers allows staff to prepare barbeque beef, coconut chicken and heaven beef, a signature dish. Using the 15-inch griddle, staff prepare satay skewers, which will allow Pham to add Vietnamese sandwiches to the menu in the near future. A convection oven cooks almonds, peanuts, chicken and other proteins. Rice cookers sit near the double-pass shelf, which Stoops says was cut down so the employees, many of whom stand about five feet tall, could reach up and over.

Though the hoods remain from the previous restaurant's equipment package, the fire suppression system and drops were upgraded to accommodate the new equipment lineup.

Prepared dishes flow to the double pass-through shelf where waitstaff pick them up and deliver to guests. Waitstaff also fill beverage orders nearby.

As owner and head chef, Pham works with confidence as she multitasks, often preparing 10 dishes simultaneously. "No doubt it's a challenge to find others who can multitask like I do," she says. "Eventually, I'll have to hire two people to do my job." She often works 14 to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. The restaurant is closed on Sunday so she and Dao can catch up on bookkeeping. Nicole also uses Sundays to prepare sauces, though in the future, she'd like to work with a company that can prepare her sauces in quantity.

The area for soiled dishes, pot washing and dishwashing is separate from the cookline to ensure food safety and prevent cross-contamination. An upright, single-compartment, high-temperature dishmachine handles all the restaurant's dishes, glasses and serviceware.

Working within an existing space with a limited budget proved to be a challenge for the design team. "We had to be flexible in our thinking," says Marvel. "We worked with the existing layout and utilized finishes that were less costly in areas that weren't subject to abuse. For instance, in the restrooms we simply repainted the existing partitions, but selected new tile finishes throughout and added lighting at the sink to liven it up. We had to value-engineer the project to meet Nicole's budget. But at the same time, the equipment in the kitchen had to meet her requirements."

As Lemon Grass attracts attention in the Lacey area, no doubt the Phams will need to find staff members who are adept at Asian cooking and can keep up with the owners' ambitious menu and disciplined pace. Efficiency is a key element to this restaurant's success and to Nicole's dream of giving her customers the finest Asian-fusion experience they've had in this country.

Facts of Note

  • Opened: February 2013
  • Units: 3 units, all located near Olympia, Wash., including the new restaurant in Lacey, Wash., 10 miles north of Olympia, the state capital; one small unit in downtown Olympia; and another small restaurant in Tumwater, Wash., 2.5 miles south of Olympia
  • Size: 5,100 sq. ft., including 1,700-sq.-ft. dining; 620-sq.-ft. bar/lounge; 440-sq.-ft. private dining; 1,300-sq.-ft. kitchen, including 130-sq.-ft. scullery, 120-sq.-ft. prep area, 225-sq.-ft. cookline and chef's make-up, and 225-sq.-ft. pick-up and service area
  • Seats: 160
  • Average Check: $15 to $18
  • Total Annual Sales, Projected: $1.7 million
  • Number of Customers per Week: 1,700
  • Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; closed Sundays
  • Menu Specialties: Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine including crispy wontons, satay skewers, hot-and-sour tofu soup, tom yum talay, shrimp mango salad, curry fried rice, noodles, curries, meat and tofu dishes, seafood offerings, vegetable dishes and Vietnamese fare.
  • Staff: 20 to 25
  • Cost of Total Restaurant Renovation: $500,000 (The Phams own the building.)
  • Equipment: $103,000 (BOH and Bar)
  • Website: N/A

Key Players

Key Owners: Nicole Pham (80 percent); Dao Pham (20 percent)
Interior & Kitchen Designer: Bargreen Ellingson Restaurant Design, Tacoma, Wash.; Peggy Marvel, interior designer
Equipment Dealer: Bargreen Ellingson; Larry Stoops, project manager/salesperson; Craig Welborn, director of marketing
Construction: Sharp Construction, Gig Harbor, Wash., Bruce Hoessly, contractor