Classic sports cars mounted above dining tables. A vintage motorcycle slowly rotating in the air. Car parts pressed into duty as décor and serving pieces. And even, at one location, a retired 18-wheel tractor-trailer parked atop the building’s reinforced roof.
Meet Quaker Steak & Lube, the turbo-charged restaurant concept that’s pulling in motor sport fans of all stripes—and their families—with equal ease, thanks to a winning combo of menu (think wings), over-the-top décor and continuous promotions.
Quaker Steak & Lube Franchising Corp. has its pedal to expansion metal. The 20-unit, Sharon, Pa.-based chain expects to open eight restaurants this year, followed by eight more locations in 2007, and 10 the year after that.
This isn’t just another themed eatery, though. These restaurants are generating some big bucks. A typical “Lube” can makeup to $4.5 million in annual sales. Systemwide, the chain generated $49 million in sales in ’05, and is on track for $73 million in sales in ’06.
And there’s more to come. “We plan to develop more than 60 franchised and company-owned locations, and create a restaurant system with more than $260 million in annual sales by the end of 2010,” says Lube Holdings Chairman Michael Stack, who’s charged with overseeing the chain’s franchise growth along with Development V.P. Andy Gunkler.
QS&L restaurants currently operate in seven states: home ground Pennsylvania, plus Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Upcoming markets include Indiana and South Carolina.
Fueling the high-octane growth is a new right-sized prototype, the first of which started construction in April ’05 in Charleston, W.V. Two more prototypes have since opened in State College, Pa., and Milford, Ohio. More on the prototype later.
Meanwhile, 32 Years Ago...
A couple years later, Moe and Jig added Buffalo-style chicken wings to the menu, and sales started to blaze. Today, Lube restaurants serve more than 40 million wings annually, offer 16 bottled sauces for retail sale and have nailed down a reputation for over-the-top motor-themed atmosphere.
The Quaker Steak design has horsepower to match the fiery sauces. From the outside, the buildings, with their vintage globe-topped gasoline pumps and a name that mimics a well-known motor oil, have persuaded more than a few folks that a new service station has come to town. But a 20-foot-tall yellow neon arrow saying “EAT,” plus the diner-style neon trim and glowing glass block windows above the entrance spell out the true intentions.
Inside, the space is divided into three dining rooms, two of which are anchored by full-sized bars, with a third full bar serving the patio dining area. There’s also a retail sales area, a game room and a Wingo Window for drive-through order pick-ups.
“The whole idea [of The Lube design] is to have great, unique food in a fun, motor-themed package,” Stack says.
Right-Sized At Last
Reaching the magic square-foot number has been a two-year process. An earlier restaurant, at 10,800 sq. ft. and with a 1,000-sq.-ft. loft and 350 indoor seats, proved “too big and costly a building to develop,” Stack says. Next they opened a smaller 8,200-sq.-ft. unit with 270 indoor seats in Charlotte, N.C., but soon felt cramped both by the interior and parking. Going forward, all new restaurants will follow the 8,700 sq. ft./300 indoor seats and large patio design.
On the bar front, the draft beer was consolidated into one mega walk-in cooler with a network of under-floor beer lines supplying the three bars. The beer kegs are hooked up in series, so when one runs dry, the next one kicks in. Also, the central ice machine was centrally positioned to serve the three bars.
In the kitchen, order-filling speed gets a boost by eliminating the double expeditor table/double handling arrangement of larger Lubes, in which food would first be placed on the chef’s counter, then moved to a second table for plate assembly. The new prototype allows all assembly to take place at the chef’s line.
Vertical space gets a full workout in the prototype, too. Most of the kitchen walls tend to be filled with shelves, racks or hooks to maximize storage space. The prototype places coolers closer to the kitchen prep area for convenient access, rather than near the back door as with existing units.
Fried, Sealed and Delivered
In order to keep up with wing demand—which averages 240 lbs. per hour, but leaps to 380 lbs. per hour on all-you-can eat nights—kitchen designers opted for high-efficiency fryers with a temperature-compensating computer and faster recovery rates than their predecessors. The new fryers allowed planners to reduce the number of machines to five for wings and three for sides, compared to the previous 10-plus machines for wings alone.
“The new fryers can hold up to the production loads,” says Facilities Director Paul Lindemann.
Cooked chicken wings go into a temporary holding station, a custom-made cabinet heated on top, bottom and sides. The depth is shallow enough that cooks don’t over-produce.
Then there’s the big frying oil question: how to keep eight fryers filled with fresh shortening and dispose of it afterwards. Under the old system, shortening arrived in 35-lb. containers, two per fryer. An employee had to physically pour it in. Used oil was drained and carried out to the oil dumpster, where “you’d hope the employee was a good aim,” Lindemann says.
Now, that unpopular task has been fully automated. Behind the scenes are two 7’ high, 1,400-lb. capacity tanks, one for fresh oil, the other for used. Pumps push fresh shortening through lines running through the ceilings into the fryers. Used oil is pumped back into a holding tank. Both tanks have exterior hook-ups for the vendor truck filling and disposal. The system has resulted in “significant savings in labor and food costs,” Lindemann says.
And Still More Equipment...
Because of the huge volume of chicken wings processed daily, Lube kitchens have boosted food safety in a couple of ways. One is a 7’ x 12’ dedicated walk-in called the Chicken Cooler, which holds the 8,000-lb. weekly chicken deliveries. The other is a custom-made drainage sink located across from the wing fryers, fitted with baskets in order to drain liquid that collects in the Cryovac-sealed wing packages. A spray hose attachment makes for easier clean-up.
Speaking of clean-up, the dishroom boasts an energy-efficient 44” conveyor-style high-temperature warewasher.
The warewasher uses 0.89 gallons per rack, compared to the dishwashers at other Lubes, rated at 1.29 and 1.49 gallons per rack.
“Because of the building size and rising material costs, anything we can do to reduce energy costs, we have to take a look at,” Lindemann adds.
One popular feature that debuted 16 years ago is the Wingo Window, in which customers can call ahead, place an order and are given a specific time to drive by and pick up their food.
“We have a few days each year—such as Super Bowl Sunday—where the Wingo Window can generate more than $10,000 a day at some restaurants,” Stack says.
In the new prototype, the Wingo Window has been moved to the prep area so there will always be someone available to service customers—without hiring a dedicated staff person. In existing Lubes, by contrast, the pick-up window and prep area are completely separate.
Cool Gear Revs Customers
Motor parts are used in functional bar design as well as decor. The Lube in Madison, Wis., for example, runs its beer taps out of a custom manufactured truck muffler enhanced with a laser-cut Corsa Performance logo. Another Lube runs taps out of motorcycle gas tanks. There are also footrests made of Corsa mufflers, menu holders formed from exhaust system parts; the hostess station created from the front of a car; and even an appetizer featuring onion rings looped around a short antenna. Kids meals are served in a fold-up cardboard racecar.
It’s all part of the restaurant’s philosophy. As Stack always tells folks, “It’s more fun to eat in a saloon than to drink in a restaurant.” And that’s the way it is at Quaker Steak & Lube.