Chef Cina to lead the emerging chain’s culinary efforts on a national level
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Featuring a production area that's one-third smaller than its older restaurants, the new Fazoli's prototype maximizes efficiency and minimizes throughput time and staffing levels.
Fazoli's introduced a new prototype design in January 2010 in Edwardsville, Ill. During the next 12 months Fazoli's opened units in Dayton, Ohio; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Poplar Bluff, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. The prototypes represent the turnaround of the concept, which hadn't introduced a new design for the past 15 years.
"The brand's history is unique," says Carl Howard, president and CEO. A self-proclaimed career restaurateur, Howard had taken on chain franchisee and CEO positions since the early 1990s, prior to joining Fazoli's in 2008.
"Fazoli's' original owners were very entrepreneurial and believed in rapid expansion," Howard says. A period of undisciplined growth left Fazoli's lacking resources. "As a result, Fazoli's almost sold to McDonald's in 2003, but McDonald's declined to proceed with the deal. The owners had to pick back up, but the focus was on cost reduction, not innovation. Sun Capital eventually bought Fazoli's, and I came aboard in 2008. My philosophy is you innovate or die. Brands that fail do so because of a lack of innovation. I expect every leader to be innovative and come up with new ideas for their areas of responsibility."
Howard said his first step when embarking on a turnaround for Fazoli's was to understand why the brand was suffering from "abnormal guest migration." He went through a self-study program to learn about the concept's history and why consumers weren't satisfied with their experience. "Customers didn't feel our menu variety and food quality were offering enough value, so they didn't come back frequently, "Howard says. "Therefore, the brand didn't grow."
As part of the growth plan, Howard hired Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president, foodservice strategies, at WD Partners, to consult on the overall strategy to revitalize the concept and oversee the design team. After reviewing data about customer satisfaction, purchasing patterns, cost, sales volume and profit margin, Lombardi and the Fazoli's team developed a new prototype for the restaurant chain.
The new Fazoli's prototypes occupy 2,000 to 2,400 square feet and seat an average of 74 customers. In contrast, the chain's other units tend to occupy between 2,900 and 3,400 square feet and seat 96 to 140 customers.
"The prototype has a more attractive design, but it is not just about pretty design," Lombardi says. "It is less costly to build and design."
The prototype costs about $275,000 to $500,000. Conversion of the Poplar Bluff, Mo., unit, which was formerly a Hardee's restaurant, cost approximately $500,000. The equipment investment for the new prototypes has been reduced by 13 percent, from $190,000 to $165,000.
"For the interior design, we selected paint, graphics and furniture that contribute to customers having a better experience," Lombardi says. "Also, the materials are durable, easy to maintain and cost efficient."
The prototype's contemporary interior design features a vibrant palette of greens, yellows and reds, which provides a colorful contrast to the black-and-white photos of people enjoying Italian food. Lighting is much brighter than at traditional units, creating a fun atmosphere to attract families and more teens with discretionary income.
The prototypes also led to a transformation of the food. "Eighty percent of the menu is either new or improved," Howard says. "Within the next few months, 100 percent of the menu, including sauces and Fazoli's signature bread sticks, will have been revised."
The associate at the counter also hands customers table numbers to display at their tables so runners know where to deliver their orders. Customers proceed to the condiment area to pick up beverages, napkins and nondisposable flatware. After visiting the condiment area, customers find seats at tables that hold grated Parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, and salt and pepper shakers.
The POS system routes menu items to appropriate stations so prep times can be coordinated. For instance, an order for twice-baked lasagna shows up on the main steam table, where it is assembled, and also at the oven coordinator's position. Once the lasagna is done cooking, the oven coordinator then directs it either to the dining room or the carryout station.
Bringing in nondisposable flatware, plates and glassware was a much-debated choice, which resulted in the installation of a single-cycle, hot-water dishwasher in each prototype. "In test restaurants, we eliminated the amount of trash and realized a 25 percent reduction in the number of trash pickups, which lowered our operating costs," says Dennis Benson, vice president, operations, who joined Fazoli's 15 years ago. The use of nondisposables is being expanded this year to include more company and franchised units as they are remodeled."
While standing at the order counter, customers can see some of the activity in the kitchen through the pass-through window. "They see some of the activity on the hot food line, but not the food preparation per se," Benson says.
When designing the prototype kitchen, the Fazoli's team considered the marriage of speed and quality. "We're aiming for meal delivery time, from the moment an order is placed until it is delivered to the table, to be between three and six minutes, depending on the types of menu items ordered," Benson says. "The kitchens are arranged so they can operate with two to three people. When we add labor to the model, it is added to the service section rather than the kitchen."
Staff at each restaurant receive menu ingredients at the loading dock and place them into a walk-in cooler, an adjoining walk-in freezer, or a dry storage area. Most Fazoli's menu ingredients, such as meatballs, chicken, beef crumbles, sauces and desserts, arrive frozen. These items are made to Fazoli's specifications at various companies' manufacturing plants and are delivered by distributors to each restaurant. "Our menu management/inventory management system allows us to have daily and meal-period projections for each menu item," Benson says.
In the prep area, staff thaw and assemble ingredients that will be used throughout the day and night. The signature bread sticks—each customer receives at least two with pasta dishes—require the most time to prepare. Staff brush par-baked bread sticks with a seasoned butter-and-garlic mixture that they whisk together in a three-gallon bucket. Staff also pre-portion frozen vegetables for consistently accurate assembly into designated menu items. Preparation of items such as salads, which require preparing lettuce blends that are dressed and tossed with specific toppings upon order, takes place at least once in the morning for lunch business and once in the afternoon for dinner business. Three times a day, staff prepare pizzas by dispersing sauce and cheese over dough before it is baked in conveyor ovens.
On one side of the kitchen is a pasta prep area containing a two-sided pasta cooker and ice bath. "During the last three years, we developed a cooker that boils the water for cooking the pasta, then pulls up the pasta and dumps it into ice water. The same batch of water can be used three times so we save water and energy," Benson says. The cooked pasta is taken to the steam table that holds sauces that are combined with the pasta. Classic pasta entrees are served immediately upon assembly, while the baked pasta entrees are baked in the conveyor ovens.
On another line in the kitchen, an upright refrigerator holds prepped pizzas, salad ingredients, salad dressings and bread sticks. Two refrigerated rails hold ingredients for such menu items as cheesy baked ziti, baked spaghetti with meatballs, chicken broccoli penne bake, chicken carbonara and many other entrees.
Pizzas, baked pasta dishes and Submarinos® are heated in one of three conveyor ovens. Two of the conveyor ovens are high-speed models to help increase throughput. "We're very pleased to be able to use technology that leverages highly forced heated air to cook products more rapidly," Benson says. "High-speed conveyor ovens are perfect for high-volume restaurants to enhance throughput and keep quality high. The high-speed ovens cook items 48 percent faster than the conventional models."
Sitting to the left of the ovens, a finishing station allows associates to add shredded lettuce, tomatoes and other ingredients to heated Submarinos®, the ultimate meatball smasher and other subs. Restaurants also utilize microwave ovens to heat refrigerated pasta toppings such as pre-portioned broccoli, peppers and onions, and mushrooms.
Energy-saving equipment and practices in the prototype units include use of Energy Star-rated refrigerators and ice machines, compact fluorescent lights, a chill device that cools water before the ice machine uses it (making the machine 30 percent more efficient) and HVAC blower motor control thermostats that cycle the blower motor off when the restaurant is unoccupied. In addition, hood skirts are designed to capture better air flow, the pasta cooker saves up to 50 percent of the water needed to cook the pasta, and a three-compartment sink contains low-flow sprayers. "Overall, we ensure the new unit is properly air balanced," Benson says.
In the future, Benson says Fazoli's will devote more time to incorporating energy-monitoring systems and other energy-saving equipment into the operations. "We wanted to get the prototypes done, and now we'll evaluate how to make them even more energy efficient," Benson says.
After roughly three years with Fazoli's, Howard is bullish about the future of this quick-service concept. "We are highly optimistic about growth. We will be hot again; and as the economy turns around, we'll experience rapid growth," he says. Howard expects up to five new company-owned units to open this year. Sometime in the near future, the company will allow franchisees to implement the new prototype. Within the year, nearly 60 existing franchised and company-owned units will be converted to contain some or all of the prototype elements.