Fire. And wine. That’s the essence of ’Za-Bistro!, a groundbreaking 3,800-sq.-ft., 124-seat restaurant concept in the Orlando, Fla., suburb of Maitland.
“Fire” refers to the 7-ft.-diameter, 6,000-lb. gas-fired stone hearth oven at the restaurant’s heart, used for hand-tossed pizzas, oven-baked entrées and sandwiches. This oven isn’t just the kitchen workhorse, mind you. It’s practically the whole team of Clydesdales—roughly 80% of the menu items are cooked or finished here. Thus, behind the scenes, all it takes is three other pieces of equipment to handle all food production.
And the “wine” refers, of course, to the wine bar, where more than 40 varieties are available by the glass, supplemented by micro-brewed beers and specialty coffees. All in all, an upscale, inviting neighborhood eatery.
Sure, you say. ’Za-Bistro! sounds like a lot of other pricey Euro-bistro experiments—until you hear a few numbers, such as: The $15 check average. Or, when it opened in December 2003, the $150,000 minimalist equipment package, before tax and installation. Or maybe the $1 million in revenues generated in year one—despite the three major hurricanes that hammered the area of Central Florida.
’Za Birth of ’Za-Bistro!
Indeed, one of the drivers for the concept was “trying to create a $30 experience for $15,” says Lee Simon, project designer and foodservice consultant with The General Group/Louis Wohl & Sons, of Tampa, Fla. “Our goal was to create an ambience one notch above typical casual dining without breaking the bank.”
The idea started with Chris Muller, associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management. Muller envisioned a restaurant based on a gourmet pizza concept, Pizza Express, that he’d enjoyed in England.
“He imagined something like California Pizza Kitchen, only more neighborhood-focused and with a European flare,” Simon explains. As the idea evolved, the number of stone hearth oven-baked menu items kept growing. Before long, the oven was the restaurant.
Tonight’s Star: The Stone Hearth Oven
But still, it’s all about the oven—the busiest piece of territory in the place. “When you’re up around 20 items in the oven at once, keeping track of timing and temperature takes practice, but it sure is awesome,” says Jon Baker, managing partner for the Maitland store.
Keeping the oven happy is a matter of regular maintenance. The burners are professionally cleaned every three months, and once a week, the crew uses a shop vac set on reverse to blow out the area around the heating elements and remove leftover debris.
Like suspenders and a belt, key replacement parts are kept on site, thanks to the spare parts kit—including igniter, valve and pilot assembly—that ships with the oven.
Should the oven go down, however, there’s a plan. The two key cooking players backing up the stone hearth oven include a 6-burner range with an undercounter convection oven and a six-pan boilerless steamer. “The operations team uses [these] for the hot items, and there’s a cold menu to switch to if necessary,” Simon says.
Putting all your production capacity into one stone hearth oven basket takes guts. Simon admits he did have some sleepless nights before the store opened.
“That’s the $500,000 question,” he says. “Up to the day the restaurant opened, my greatest fear was whether the oven could keep up with demand.”
The oven more than proved itself within six weeks of opening. “On Valentine’s Day, they did more than 300 covers—mostly dinners,” Simon says. “The oven has kept up amazingly well.”
Functional, Flexible, Minimal
Practical elements include outfitting the service-entry with an “air door” (to block pests and vermin); placing the soft drink system and CO2 tank in back (to limit the need for purveyors to enter unless necessary); and separate doors for entering and exiting the kitchen.
Meanwhile, a compact 5-pan blast chiller stars as a behind-the-scenes linchpin, not so much for its food safety abilities as for the way it enables the assemble-to-order menu. It reduces bake times and allows work to be completed earlier in the day.
Food items are par-cooked on the range, convection oven or steamer, placed in ovenproof serving dishes or in hotel pans, then blast chilled. At that point, the food can sit on the line in undercounter refrigerators.
“When an order comes in, line cooks pull out the appropriate dish and toss it in the oven to finish cooking,” Simon says. Most of the menu is prepared in-house, going thru the blast chiller-to-oven process. Only pizza dough, some soups, desserts and a few component ingredients come from off-site vendors.
The blast chill arrangement gets kudos from the local health inspector. “He tells us it’s one of the only restaurants in the area where he’ll eat,” Simon notes.
The dining room features banquettes and tables, rather than the booths usually found at other casual-dining eateries. The slightly oversized 30-inch-square tables can be moved to create different seating combinations as needed.
Also, a stage area used for live music doubles as a buffet area for brunches or special events. (That area plus the low check average has added an unexpected bonus: “They’ve had tons of baby showers, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners—things you’d never think of for [most casual-dining restaurants],” Simon adds.)
In the stone hearth oven work area, a sink next to the staging table allows workers to use the space as a prep area in the mornings. There’s also plenty of room to add a more expansive breakfast menu component in the future, by adding portable induction cookers on the front counter and a combi-oven in back.
And out-of-sight in the back-of-house are extra plumbing and electrical hookups for future equipment acquisitions, such as a dedicated undercounter warewasher for glassware, or a 40-qt. mixer, should they decide to make pizza dough in-house.
“I’m a big proponent of putting the utilities in from the beginning so you can expand later on,” says Simon, who goes by the “first define, then fill” motto. “Buy what you can now, then add more down the road when you can. I’ve seen too many projects where the facility and design shrink to fit the current budget.”
Less Equipment = Energy Savings
For starters, the oven, which operates at about 700°F using about 220,000 Btus of power, draws about the same juice as the six-burner range, used for only 10% of menu items.
On the ventilation side, the design team opted for a 4’ x 4’ condensate hood, up from the 3’ x 3’ hood they’d planned for. The reasoning was simple: the supplier provided research showing that the slight increase in hood size gave a much higher capture rate, putting less heat and moisture into the surrounding kitchen, and consequently, a smaller load on the HVAC system.
Overall, ’Za-Bistro!’s monthly electricity tab is about 40% lower than the location’s previous restaurant tenant, thanks to fewer equipment pieces, a better HVAC system, and smaller, more energy-efficient walk-ins.
Front of House, Wining And Dining
Décor-wise, the merlot, beige and gold color scheme—with copper and blue accents—echo the wine element while lending an upscale feel. Between tables, low frosted-glass dividing walls are etched with ’Za-Bistro!’s fire-and-wine logo, through which you can make out the flickering glow from the stone hearth oven.
The rich look gets a boost from a few cost-saving tricks, such as the eye-catching “copper” hood above the oven. “It’s really a laminate,” Simon admits. “Far less expensive than real copper, and with none of the maintenance issues. We tried to spend money where it counted.”
The wine display—a floor-to-ceiling built-in cabinet—is another budget saver. Instead of a pricey custom millwork piece, the cabinet uses buy-out wall-mounted wine racks, recessed can lighting and stock French doors.
No expense was spared in the bathrooms, however, where wall-mounted faucets and countertop basins remind guests that the restaurant is a notch above.
“We’ve upgraded the same areas that people do in their homes—kitchens and baths—and that leaves an impression,” Simon explains.
Simon readily ticks off a few tweaks: “Other designs we explored included using a different shape of oven, one that’s rectangular and allows for access by more than one person at a time,” he says.
Other potential changes would be adding more refrigerated and heated holding capabilities to the front counter facing the stone hearth oven; shrinking the seating area in front of the oven to eight seats for a more intimate feel; and enhancing the interior and exterior décor packages for better impact and durability.