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November 2006
How Sizzler Got Its Groove Back
Janice Cha


Menu/segment: Family dining/fast casual steak, seafood and salad concept

Headquarters: Culver City, Calif.

Facility size: 5,800 sq. ft.

Number of seats: 185

Check average: $11.23

Equipment package: $500,000

Number of stores: 315 (232 domestic, 83 int’l.)

Expansion plans: 8-10 new prototype stores will open in 2006 with a target of 40-45 new by the end of ’08

Walk through the door of the new Sizzler in Springdale, Ark., and you’ll know one thing straight off: This ain’t your daddy’s buffet steakhouse anymore. Gone is the chute corralling you through the payment counter and the all-you-can eat buffet. Gone is the cafeteria-style seating and the pseudo-Southwest décor. Equally gone is the over-cooked, blandly-seasoned buffet fare.

With the new Sizzler, whose first new prototype in 15 years opened in Antioch, Calif., in 2004, it’s all about the food.

The feel of the new Sizzler is apparent the moment you walk in. After paying for your entrée you continue around the order desk and into the main dining area, where you see, front and center, a showy spotlighted salad bar flanked by a generously sized soup station and dessert bar. Behind the salad bar, and just beyond the seven mirror-polished heat lamps hanging above the expediting station, lies a busy—and very visible—kitchen. You take your seat, maybe take a turn around the salad bar, and suddenly wait staff are delivering your entrée. And since you’ve already paid, you’re in control of how long you stay at the table.

A new Sizzler indeed. Call it QSR crossed with full-service dining—a hybrid, if you will. This prototype, with its pay-at-the-beginning style paired with both table and self-service aspects, is designed to pull in up to $90,000 in sales per week, based on a check average of $11.23. And it’s the food that’s bringing guests back for repeat visits.

Results have been good. As of September, the California chain had signed commitments to open nearly 30 stores nationwide in the next five years, in Arkansas, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Texas, Puerto Rico and Utah. The goal is to open 45 stores by 2008, Sizzler execs say.

A Sizzling History

The nearly 50-year-old concept was launched in 1958 as a value-oriented self-serve steakhouse in Culver City, Calif. Over the next 30 years, the company proceeded to franchise its way to up 700 stores, many of them operating with an all-you-can-eat buffet format in the early ’80s.

Size eventually took its toll, and the chain began to lose focus, food quality and guests. In the late ’90s, Sizzler filed for bankruptcy and sold about a third of its stores. The chain had become a “dated, tired, beat-up concept,” says Dudley McMahon, the current VP of product development, one of the team members brought on board by CEO Ken Cole in ’01 to rebuild the brand.

First Prototype In A Long Time

The three-year overhaul started with the food, then moved on to the facility. On the food front, McMahon’s first priority was Sizzler’s dated menu. Within a year, the self-serve buffet format had been eliminated, and some 44 of the 47 original menu items were gone, replaced tweaked or otherwise improved. Steak, seafood and salad, all “at great value,” rule Sizzler’s menu today.

Next, Team Sizzler took a hard look at operations, starting with store design. It had been 15 long years since the last full redesign. And there was little if any uniformity from store to store besides the menu and dining area. Restaurants tended to have their own look and layout, reflecting the franchisee’s taste or even the building’s previous occupant.

“The only thing they really had in common was the Sizzler name, grilled steaks, and the griddle and fryer in the kitchen,” McMahon says.

The new Sizzler evolved from a remodeling program launched in ’02 in four parts of the country. Focus groups, consisting of the largest franchisees, gave their ideas about how a redesigned Sizzler should look, and their answers always revolved around…you guessed it…the food.

The resulting 5,800-sq.-ft. prototype is essentially a big box, with two focal points to catch your eye as you enter the dining area: the signature Sizzler Salad Bar, and the display kitchen. The kitchen occupies about a third of the overall building footprint.

“The idea is to convey freshness and quality to the guests at a glance,” McMahon says. “The open kitchen helps the staff, too, since cooks who are able to see who they’re cooking for tend to have more of a sense of pride and feel closer to the guest experience.”

A Very Efficient Kitchen

Efficiency determined the kitchen equipment layout. Food production starts at the back, where product is received, cleaned and prepped. It moves forward to the front, where orders are plated and finished. Ticket times average a speedy eight to 10 minutes. By contrast, cooking lines in earlier Sizzlers moved food from one side to the other, often resulting in ticket times of more than 15 minutes.

Most of the food spends some time on any of three grills that anchor the cooking equipment line: one dedicated to steaks, one for poultry and one for seafood.

The grills are flanked on either side by two pass-through openings in the wall that separates the cook and prep areas. The windows allow for easy supply and communication between line cooks and prep workers; one window is positioned between the fryers and griddle, the other between the grills and the sauté station.

“This way cooks never have to leave the line when they need something,” McMahon says. “It’s like a fighter plane that can refuel in mid-air.”

Backing up the grills are a double-stack convection oven, a two-burner range, and a sauté and steam station. Reflecting Sizzler’s focus on fresh foods, the walk-in cooler is more than double the size of its predecessors, while freezer space has been halved.

Sturdy Stuff For The Long Haul

In choosing the prototype’s equipment, McMahon’s team zoomed in on efficiencies of labor, energy or space.

The fryers, for example, were chosen for their automatic self-filtering oil system. All oil is filtered after lunch and after dinner. The process takes about five to eight minutes: “You just attach the hose, flip a couple of switches, drain and filter the oil, then run it back into the frypot,” McMahon says. The process saves time and energy for employees and extends the oil’s useful life by about 20%.

“Extra durable” convection ovens with reinforced doors, from which McMahon expects at least seven years’ use, bake everything from breads and pastries to ribs and potatoes.  

The grills were chosen in part due to their “wider gas flow,” a feature that gives more uniform heat distribution across the cooking surface. As a bonus, the grills’ smoking capabilities (just add wood chips) allow for more flexibility in serving specials.

Finally, less glamorous but certainly critical is the centralized HVAC rooftop cooling system.” It’s easier for repairs/maintenance to take place when everything is in one central rooftop location,” McMahon says. “Repair people don’t have to come into the kitchen and get in your way; the heat stays outside; and the HVAC motors tend to last longer.”

Food Safety Focus

Sensible food safety features are built into the flow of product starting at the delivery dock.

“As soon as boxed produce arrives, it’s washed, sanitized and stored in clear containers that allow a quick I.D. on site,” McMahon explains. A dedicated produce sink is located near the loading dock doors.

Fine points of the system include sinks in the prep area that have a fine spray nozzle attachment for washing delicate fruits and berries. A built-in sanitizing system connected at the faucet zaps potential germs on contact.

“The sanitizing solution is automatically dispensed through the water line, so it stays consistent with every user,” McMahon adds.

The vegetable prep system allows Sizzler to operate a much beefier (so to speak) salad bar program. The bar is stocked daily with nearly 60 fresh fruits and vegetables, compared to about 30 items five years ago.

And the food is fresher, too. “Four years ago we used 14 pre-prepped salad items,” McMahon says. Today, only two items—potato salad and macaroni salad—are made outside the restaurant.

New Menu In The Spotlight

Earlier we mentioned kitchen equipment and menu flexibility. Adding the sauté station, steamer and convection oven allowed Team Sizzler to add healthier menu options such as pasta and fresh fish. By contrast, older restaurant kitchens were limited to menu items that could be either grilled or deep fried.

Since McMahon’s arrival, he’s changed 99% of the menu, retaining only the trademarked Malibu Chicken. The changes have improved “flavor and presentation, and are more current with today’s dining trends,” McMahon says. “Look at the fresh fish—we offer three types, prepared three ways, daily.”

The new kitchens turn out pasta, fettuccine Alfredo, and shrimp scampi with equal flair. Customer faves include such platter combos as “bourbon glazed onion stack with Cajun shrimp scampi and fresh vegetables” or the “chipotle barbecue glazed skillet platter with chicken, mushrooms, Cajun shrimp scampi and steak.”

“The new menu addresses the ‘veto’ vote, so there’s something for everyone in the party,” McMahon says.

Dining Room Details  

Dual dining rooms on either side of the salad bar give guests plenty of seating options—and, during slow times, one can be closed off to save labor. Upscale furnishings, etched glass divider walls, and Sizzler’s signature ledge-rock wall and skylights create a bright, inviting space.

Snappy signage helps get Sizzler’s new message across: a sign over the salad bar says “Nobody salads like Sizzler,” for example. The company’s history is told through black-and-white murals decorating the walls. Interspersing the murals is a series of boldly colored food photos that reinforce the restaurant’s “fresh” message.

Outside, a higher roofline, dramatic lighting and distinctive colors replace the long, low, snoozy profile of Sizzlers past.

A Hot Future

For now, at least, Sizzler execs expect to focus on their core market. “Sizzler’s U.S. growth strategy is to expand in the West, where we’re strongest, while also introducing the brand east of the Rockies,” says Todd Peterson, development v.p. “Our goal since taking the company private in ’05 is to add 45 new stores by the end of ’08.” 

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