Chili’s Lights Up the Dining Room

Brinker International launched a front-of-the-house lighting retrofit for all of its domestic Chili's restaurants system wide, changing out their entire fleet of 827 restaurants in just four to five months. Starting in the summer of 2010 and ending that fall, the chain replaced all incandescent lamps with LED lights after researching various energy-efficient options and finding that fluorescents didn't provide the quality of light or the ambiance the chain was seeking, said Kevin Falconer, senior director of design for Brinker International.

"It was a win-win — we saved a significant amount of energy, and actually improved the environment," Falconer said. "We want our restaurants to be appealing, warm and inviting, and found that a significant number of energy-saving lamps just don't render colors very well, especially the red tones, making food look greenish or bluish." After spending several years monitoring the development of LEDs, when the technology was beginning to get closer to the warm spectrum, Brinker worked closely with some particular manufacturers to develop a LED light that met their expectations.

"The natural technology of LED is a very defined focus light, which is good for a lot of applications, but if you wanted 360 degree illumination, there were few choices a couple years ago," Falconer said. "In some instances, you could use cold cathode, but only if it wasn't placed directly over food or guests. Since the technology has advanced, there are now LED lamps that can achieve this omnidirectional light and can be used in our decorative areas."

By switching from 65-watt lamps to 6-watt lamps (old lamps were donated to nonprofits or sent to recycling facilities), Falconer figures the chain was able to achieve more than 90 percent in energy savings. They were also able to extend the average life of their 200 lamps per store, from between 800 and 3,000 hours to between 25,000 and 50,000 hours, a total of eight years of use versus three to eight months. Though the LED lamps were an expensive product up front, going from $0.39 to $39 per lamp, using professional installers rather than electricians ensured that the change-out took only a couple of hours per store. "The change paid off in less than two years through energy savings," Falconer said. "Everything from that point on just became gravy."

The chain was also able to secure a strong, five-year replacement warranty, though they expect the LED lamps to last at least that long.

Though the chain accomplished the retrofit two years ago, Chili's has been at work developing a brand-new prototype that the chain plans to roll out by the end of this year, starting with the Mesquite, Texas, location. This could affect some of the retrofitted lighting in the older stores, with minor tweaks to squeeze out even more energy efficiency. As part of the new prototype, Falconer said, new roller shade blinds will roll up and down to control sun and let in more natural light. Chili's will focus the LED lights more directly over the tabletops to accentuate the food and make it easier to read menus. And lighter tones throughout will not only alleviate darkness, but will also help those energy-efficient lamps do their job more easily.

Falconer said the chain also plans to apply the same lessons learned from the retrofit to the new prototype development, namely, matching up the LED lamps with the dimming system to further save energy and avoid "putting all eggs in one basket." In other words, using a mixture of different manufacturers will offer a basis for comparison and will provide a backup system if one set of lamps were to fail.

"LEDs look like regular lightbulbs, but they really are like little computers," Falconer said. Since these lightbulbs communicate digitally with dimming systems through wire cables, you want to make sure they are speaking the same language, just like Mac and PC computers need special programming to be compatible with each other.

"LED lamps are beginning to be like computers: Every year they're cheaper and better," Falconer said. But even though these lamps are better today than two years ago, he said, "there's a lot of variety in terms of quality, so it's important to do your research on the various brands out there."