When your restaurant’s super-fresh Tex-Mex food, funky décor and a fully stocked hot sauce bar keep your stores packed day and night, you’ve got to have the kitchen capacity to handle the crowds. With a new prototype that nearly doubles the number of meals that can be served per day, the folks at Tijuana Flats have achieved just that.
Make no mistake: Tijuana Flats isn’t just another chomp-and-stomp burrito joint. The concept’s full menu of highly addictive Tex-Mex food and proprietary hot sauces such as “Smack My A** And Call Me Sally—The Slap Heard Around The World” have created a cult following in parts of Florida and the Southeast. Now the 11-year-old, 44-unit Orlando, Fla., chain is ready for rapid expansion—and they’ve got just the prototype to fuel it.
The prototype opened in Winter Garden, Fla., in July 2005. Two months into operations, the numbers were as hot as some of Tijuana Flats’ fiery condiments. The store has been serving nearly 600 meals per day, and “tracking $1.8 million in annual sales,” compared to $1.1 million in average unit volumes at other stores, says Camp Fitch, president and CEO.
Even better, there’s room for growth. “The prototype’s kitchen has the capacity to generate up to $2.5 million,” adds Fitch, whose resume includes top posts with Metromedia Restaurant Group’s Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale chains.
The secret to Tijuana’s sales success is simple yet efficient: A mirrored make-line in the kitchen has allowed operators to nearly double production capacity and annual sales volume with only a slight change to the kitchen layout and equipment list.
A Barrage Of Burritos
Five years ago, stores averaged $400,000 in annual sales out of a 1,900-sq.-ft. footprint with a 700-sq.-ft. kitchen. (Today some of those same stores are cranking out more than $1 million in sales—and practically bursting at the seams in the process, Fitch says.)
The second design jumped in size to 2,300 sq. ft., in which the roughly 1,000-sq.-ft. kitchen gained half a production line dedicated to takeout orders. Unit volume grew to $750,000.
Now the third design comes in response to the concept’s popularity. The Winter Garden store, at 3,300 sq. ft. with a 1,200-sq.-ft. kitchen, features a mirrored make-line layout that has more than doubled production capacity.
A printer sits at the center of the line, generating orders from four registers. When the order comes up, be it eat-in or carryout, it can go either to the right or to the left to be filled. Once complete, a runner brings the meal out to the dining room and calls out the customer’s name from the order slip to locate the table. Average elapsed time elapsed from register to table: seven minutes.
The equipment package for the new prototype is about $98,000, compared to $78,000 in equipment for the original store models. And the cost to build the prototype is $300,000, compared to $230,000 for smaller stores. “It’s not a huge jump in cost considering that you’re literally doubling production capacity,” Fitch notes.
“What we did not duplicate,” he adds, “is the back cooking line under the hoods. That’s where you run into money.”
Toeing The Lines
At peak times, up to nine people can work the line; in slower times of day, four workers are enough.
The cook line on the back wall is includes a 48”, four-burner flattop on a refrigerated base with two drawers; a steamer used for retherming precooked items; and three fryers.
Around the corner from the make-line, and on the way out to the dining room, you’ll find the appetizer station. This is equipped with a refrigeration unit holding salsa, guacamole and other chilled components. The station also includes a chip warmer and a cheese warmer. Food runners are responsible for assembling appetizer orders.
The nearby beverage station includes a margarita machine, beer taps, soft drink dispensers and a tea brewer.
Other parts of the kitchen receive equal attention to detail. The ice machine, for example, is oversized to keep up with demand in the hot climate—the water going into the machine averages about 95°F. Tijuana Flats specs flake-type crushed ice, and its ice machine is fitted with a 1,200-lb. bin with two 2,000-lb. capacity heads.
There’s also a walk-in cooler, a small ice cream-style freezer, a three-compartment pot-washing sink, and space and utilities for future pieces of equipment such as an extra food processor.
There’s no dishwasher, since food is served either on sturdy black-coated Styrofoam plates or in reusable baskets. Back-of-house, disposable heat-resistant liners placed in the hotel pans reduce the need for heavy-duty washing and scrubbing.
Meanwhile, Out In Front...
Although no two stores are alike, their color schemes all come from a psychedelic palate that includes purple, lime green, orange and yellow. You’ll also spot a distinct dragon motif—or maybe it’s lizards—and a certain sci-fi/comic book flair to the various murals that rule the walls at each restaurant.
Counter fronts and wainscoting are covered with corrugated metal, which is in turn plastered with edgy bumper stickers. Walls feature scatter-shot picture arrays and shelves of hot sauce bottles. Stacked beer boxes help direct traffic towards the registers. Multi-colored track lights illuminate the various sayings and design elements.
The main addiction—er, attraction—of the dining area, however, is Tijuana Flats’ largest Hot Bar to date, where customers can choose from an always-changing selection of 20 hot sauces, many of them developed and retailed by the company. A large sign warns, in no uncertain terms, that “these sauces are extremely hot; use at own risk; no children allowed at Hot Bar; and wash hands after use.”
Home-state Florida now supports 34 Tijuana Flats restaurants. New and developing markets for the company include Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, plus the greater Philadelphia area.
“The Slap Heard Around The World,” indeed. Tijuana Flats is on the move.