Design: The Space, Equipment and Operations Conversation

With the due diligence complete and the numbers showing the opportunity for profitability based on income projections and all costs, the design work begins. This is the time to focus on the physical space and how it will need to be adapted to the new menu.

Multi-use equipment continues to increase in popularity as operators look for efficient ways to prep a number of different food items, according to Corey-Ferrini. Equipment options fitting this profile range from combi ovens to plug-and-play components. The growth of the fast-casual segment has resulted in use of the latter items, which operators often combine in a front-of-the-house unit to aid in efficiency. The different components can range from invisible induction counter tops, similar to residential smooth top stoves, to more modern and branded drop-ins for chilled items. She notes that this solution would also work well for full-service restaurants with front-of-the-house cooking, although back-of-the-house issues have other solutions for efficient redesign.

Martinez stresses the importance of analyzing how prepping and serving the new product(s) will flow. For instance, if a fast-food hamburger takes 30 seconds to prepare and an operator wants to add handmade shakes that take a minute, redesign of the work station will have to take this into consideration. As another example, the speed of prep differs for a hot sandwich vs. a cold sandwich. Operators need to allow for the variable timing.

Locating new equipment in the kitchen can be a challenge, says Kennedy, especially in a retrofit. Most kitchens tend to be pretty compact units. Designers will evaluate the possibility of replacing or eliminating an older piece of equipment with a new multi-use piece. When comparing the new vs. old equipment, factor in the energy consumption, too.

In addition to new equipment, new ventures frequently require additional smallwares, tabletop items and packaging.

Return on investment for equipment and other purchases should be a part of the due diligence, but Martinez says making this calculation may not be as easy as one might think. He gives the example of purchasing a new espresso machine. It is fairly straightforward to figure the cost of the machine and the necessary labor and match against projections for sales. What is more difficult is cannibalization that might occur when people who might have ordered regular coffee, tea or juice, order a latte instead.

Corey-Ferrini also points out that, since many of the new equipment items, like combi ovens, have not had case studies written about them, it may be difficult to project longevity or productivity with any accuracy.

Storage can represent another key issue, especially with the addition of a daypart. Having the ability to add new storage areas may represent an efficient solution. If not, the operation may need to renegotiate distribution to include additional deliveries, particularly if the new items are fresh or locally sourced.

The transition from one daypart to another represents another issue. Customers get testy if they order an omelet at 11:10 a.m. and are told that the breakfast menu is no longer available. Some solve this challenge by keeping a few breakfast items on the lunch menu for those who want to eat them later in the day.

Execution: The Go/No Go Conversation

After answering the ideation questions and identifying solutions to all challenges, the go/no go discussion can take place and the operation can decide with the necessary facts at hand.

At this point reality should be the primary motivator and guide. Malody says this is the time to "avoid magical thinking." She says many clients believe "if we add it they will come," and adds "it ain't necessarily so."

Malody notes that she had a client that was set on adding a coffee/breakfast drive-thru to a sit-down lunch and dinner restaurant. The numbers and the décor of the existing concept, she decided, did not support the addition of breakfast. The operator went ahead regardless. But, four years later, even with considerable ongoing investment in advertising and marketing, the operation is still not making the desired additional profit.

In fact, Malody says that the corollary of adding a daypart — dropping one — should be considered if it is not profitable. She cautions against clinging to a losing proposition as though it were a silver bullet.

However, there are many examples in the marketplace of operations that have extended menus and added dayparts successfully. Malody recalls her experience as a food and beverage director for Starbucks. Before adding lunch, they had to go through a "rigorous examination surrounding equipment, lease restrictions, labor and operational flow impact. Doing so meant new vendors, new equipment and new skill sets that had to be trained for as well as a new awareness of inventory control and rotation." She adds that it was a huge process to add savories to the menu and the necessary heating equipment. They had to allow room on the back counters, often with new electricity capacity. She says this experience gave her a great lesson in what one has to consider before adding a daypart.

In a tough economy and a competitive marketplace, this strategy to expand a brand offering, if executed carefully and correctly, will result in improved sales and increased profitability.

As Kennedy says, the key is to make sure it will be profitable. She quotes the late Dave Thomas who said, "Profitability is not a dirty word." That should be the ultimate goal.

Chili’s Completes Kitchen of the Future

Chili’s Kitchen of the Future strategy was a comprehensive design project created to achieve “three wins,” according to Homero Ortegon, vice president of construction, design, engineering and facilities for Brinker International, the chain’s parent company. The project, which began in 2010 and wrapped up this past April, has been a win for guests, team members and the organization.

Ortegon and his team looked at every aspect of the back of the house, the front of the house and the exterior of the units with the goal of creating a new image for the 38-year-old chain, as well as refreshing the brand promise. A major thrust of the project was to provide the opportunity to innovate with new menu items, which meant redesigning the kitchen for more flexible cooking. “We wanted to deliver a more consistent product at a quicker pace,” he explains. “This objective was tied into our overall brand strategy.”

The team analyzed workflow before making final decisions. They selected the latest heat transfer technology that offers a range of cooking options, from convection to radiant heat. In some cases they were able to reduce labor and, in others, use existing labor more productively. The business case, i.e., return on investment, was also a key factor. Ortegon reports that some equipment did not exist. He and his team worked with manufacturers to tweak components so the equipment would be more reliable and support the process more effectively.

Ortegon explains the new equipment was a means to the end goal of facilitating the change necessary in workflow to produce new menu items. The team worked with the company’s consumer insights group and culinary team, looking at a five-to-seven year plan for creating a shift toward the latest trends and guest demands. Testing occurs in a couple of phases. The alpha stage tests a number of solutions in three to five restaurants. Chilli’s tests the results in a broader beta phase in 30 restaurants. Only then are the new items delivered into the field.

“It’s really gratifying to have accomplished this,” Ortegon says. “There is nothing we want to cook that we can’t cook.” He adds that the Kitchen of the Future has provided a better guest experience and Chili’s employees are “in a better place.”

Au Bon Pain Adds Hot Sandwiches to Menu

The biggest challenge in adding hot sandwiches to their menu, says Maria Feicht, chief branding officer for Au Bon Pain, was to keep them hot all the way through. "Our goal was not just to create a sandwich," she says. "Consumers have many hot sandwiches available to them, but many are not hot all the way through and they don't stay hot."

She explains that microwaving sandwiches can compromise the integrity of the bread. Since the brand's promise centers on fresh bakery products, this was not an option. Using a panini press adds moisture to the sandwich, which can cool quickly and the bread can become either soggy or hardened. The solution was a convection oven that toasts the sandwich and heats it through. "It's a beautiful thing," Feicht says.

Once the cooking problem was solved, it was necessary to find a container that would maintain the heat until the consumer got back to the office or wherever it would be consumed. The result is a lined, paperboard box that allows steam to escape while maintaining heat. A staff member first wraps the sandwich in paper to keep all the ingredients in their proper place and then places it in the box.

"Our customers are very pleased," Feicht says. "We've rolled the new category out nationwide." The new ovens required a substantial investment and had to be installed in existing spaces in the units. Training was also needed as most staff were used to creating cold sandwiches.

The oven also is able to microwave when needed. In addition, it can be programmed for the cook time required by each of the hot sandwiches they have added to the menu. Executive Chef Stefano Cordova coined the phrase "hot sandwich crafting" for building the new items. The new cooking method and the new packaging maintain the integrity of the crafting.

The new oven also has allowed Au Bon Pain to add items to their existing breakfast daypart, another success. The hot sandwiches now hold a 20 percent share of the chain's sandwich category.