Until recently, that is.
Backed by a restaurant-savvy team, owners Bradley and Tania Burt aim to jolt the Des Moines, Iowa, chain beyond its Midwest roots and into national prominence.
Maid-Rite Corp.’s game plan for growth hinges on a cool retro-diner inspired prototype backed by a state-of-the-art kitchen, a full-blown franchisee training program and, yes, those ever-popular ground beef sandwiches served on fresh baked buns. (Maid-Rite’s offering, called “loose meat” sandwiches, ranks fourth in an Iowa state poll of favorite food, behind corn on the cob, the Iowa Chop and Muscatine melons.)
The company is definitely on the move. Since taking ownership in 2001, the Maid-Rite management team has closed 17 underperforming units and opened more than 14 new ones. Managers now expect to launch 16 locations this year and as many as 24 next year. If those plans pan out, the chain will surpass 100 restaurants by 2008.
And do think “national” when considering Maid-Rite expansion. With a goal of opening up to 1,000 stores in 15 years, Maid-Rite currently is developing units in at least six states in addition to Iowa.
Maid-Rite’s new prototypical stores should also ratchet up the annual per-store sales figures. New stores are each targeted to bring in more than $750,000 annually, compared to the average figure of $450,000 for older, traditional stores.
Back To Basics, And Beyond
“When we bought the company in ’01, it had no infrastructure to speak of,” says CEO Bradley Burt, a former banker. At that point, the Maid-Rite system was a collection of 70 eateries that shared the same name, menu, logo and signage. Everything else—from store design to training to operations—had been determined by individual franchisees.
The Burts met individually with long-time franchisees and researched the archives to tap into the “essential” Maid-Rite. The resulting proto reflects its heritage and has much in common with traditional stores.
For starters, there’s the familiar open kitchen, with its surrounding U-shaped counter and barstool seating. The original red-and-white chain logo—an octagon fronted by a rectangle—evokes the past. An ice cream counter, chrome accents, neon signs and checkerboard patterns round out familiar elements.
But the resemblance stops there. Not only is the new Maid-Rite prototype larger, the stores also blend in such features as wireless Internet access, Andy Warhol-esque murals of vintage Maid-Rite photographs and contemporary design elements.
On the operations side, the Maid-Rite team created standard prototype floorplans for franchisees to select from for future expansion. They developed an extensive training program and manuals that are shared with new franchisees during a 10-day stint at Maid-Rite University. They adjusted the recipes to rely on freshly made and baked foods and spec’d new equipment accordingly. And they installed a state-of-the-art POS system.
“We’re moving the Maid-Rite franchise into the 21st century,” Burt says.
Would-be Maid-Rite franchisees can choose from five prototypes. At 3,800 sq. ft., the largest seats 114. The 2,900-square-footer offers 97 seats; the 1,750 sq. ft. model has 66 seats; and a 1,200-sq.-ft. version offers 40 seats. There’s also a 500-sq.-ft. food court option.
Choosing New Equipment, Top To Bottom
Equipment choices hinged on ease of use and training as well as equipment “smarts.” The development team, led by Operations V.P. Joe Liston, tested every piece of equipment at the Maid-Rite training center.
“We chose items we found to be the most useful, user friendly, safe and cost effective,” Liston says. The resulting equipment package runs up to $275,000 for the largest store plan.
First upgrade: fryers. Instead of the lower-priced, low-tech units found in existing Maid-Rite stores, Liston opted for a fryer with computer-controlled circuitry and the ability to automatically adjust cooking times to match temperature variations. He and the team also liked the fryer’s “instant on” feature and built-in filtration system. Also key: a carbon filter that lets shortening be used for up to 19 days.
The braising skillet, used for Maid-Rite’s signature loose meat sandwiches, is just as important as the fryers. The ground beef is prepared on site at each restaurant, so customers can see and smell their food being prepared—a great leap forward compared to the old method, which relied on pre-cooked, frozen meat rethermed in 5-lb. bags. “We like the skillet’s tilting mechanism, its even heat distribution and ability to cook 20 lbs. of ground beef at a time,” Liston says.
For onsite baking, kitchen planners went for an oven-proofer combo, hearth-baked style. Simplicity drove the choice. The only moving part is the fan for circulating air in the proofer. One batch of bread bakes in about 15 minutes, allowing a 135-bun-per hour capacity.
A custom-built steam prep table anchors the kitchen—and the whole restaurant, for that matter. Surrounded by the U-shaped service counter and its bar stools, the table itself and continuous food prep are constantly visible to the customer. The steam table features sheet pan storage, a bun warmer, cold condiment storage, and space to hold the ground beef, hot dogs and soups. The table’s “smart” aspects include built-in printers for sandwich orders and built-in electric cables. The entire table is powered by a single electrical hookup. Flexible conduits and water sources allow it to be moved for floor cleaning.
The kitchen ventilation system received as much scrutiny as any of the cooking equipment, if not more. The hood was designed to work in tandem with a rooftop makeup air system, bypassing the HVAC entirely. The makeup air arrangement delivers outside air in front of the hood and pulls it out through the hood. Not only does the setup put less demand on the HVAC, it comes into the kitchen so gently that grill cooks don’t even notice the outside air. Liston estimates that the system will pay for itself within nine months, thanks to savings on air conditioning and heating bills.
All new Maid-Rites include a full array of ice cream equipment, too, from high-speed blender to ice cream display case. The stores can offer an assortment of toppings, thanks to a co-branding arrangement with Wells’ Blue Bunny Ice Cream.
The ‘Rite’ Design
Color palate, surface materials and furnishings all point the decades-old diner-style concept in an upward direction.
Poinsettia-red walls accented by a silver wall next to the ice cream counter give the front of house a warm, active feel. A blown-up, colorized photo from the original Maid-Rite in Muscatine, Iowa, circa 1926, graces one wall. The mural can be framed in silver or hung as wallpaper, and can be personalized by adding the name of the franchisee and town.
The back wall of the kitchen—visible to customers—gets special visual treatment. Instead of the standard white wall made of fiberglass reinforced plastic found in older Maid-Rite kitchens, Tania opted for a combination of standard stainless sheet behind cooking equipment, and above that, a form of textured galvanized steel produced by Fabricon steel artist/fabricator Phil Williams. Other kitchen walls are covered with Korogard, a decorative, higher-end FRP product that meets the health code.
True to the diner heritage, the floor is a checkerboard pattern of slip-resistant 18” square Italian tiles in ivory and light gray. The tiles are set at a 45˚ angle to the walls to heighten visual interest.
The counters and millwork pick up the checkerboard theme of the floor by using glass blocks for the front, and a “Gray Nebula” laminate on the top. Some stores’ glass block counters are lit from behind; others hide shelving or beverage refrigerators.
Menu boards are handmade by Fabricon’s Williams. The signs’ backing is made of brushed steel cut into ’50s-inspired shapes. The menu part is a series of plastic slips that can be easily changed out as needed. The menu boards are lit from the front with hanging cobalt-blue accent lighting attached to a rail on the ceiling.
Neon signs—up to six per restaurant—are hand-made art pieces created by a local sign company. The signs, which read “Malts & Shakes,” “Too Good To Be A Patty,” “Our Name Says It All,” and “Sandwiches That Are Satisfying,” come in fuchsia, yellow, blue, purple and aqua, to match the mural and carpeting.
Down The Road
Like the name says, the sandwich—and the
store—are “Maid-Rite.” Loose meat, anyone?