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April 2007
Equipping La Madeleine
Janice Cha

You have to hand it to La Madeleine Bakery, Café & Bistro. With its mouthwatering displays of just-baked breads; weathered wooden tables and wood ceiling beams; and a menu that ranges from quiches and croissants to salmon and chicken, this is a chain that manages to consistently make you feel like you’ve just stepped into a French countryside café.

Let’s make that a profitable French countryside café. The company’s freestanding prototype store in Rockwall, Texas, opened in November 2006 to record-breaking sales of $88,000 per week, in a community with a population of only 30,000. Customers seem to love La Madeleine’s fresh, made-to-order food and casual-dining ambience wrapped up in quick-service convenience. 

Bringing together reps from culinary, operations and construction, Team La Madeleine refined the Gallic-inspired bakery-café-bistro and began expanding again after a period of reorganization. The 60-unit Dallas chain plans to open eight stores this year followed by 10 in 2008. Backing that growth is a dynamite prototype that is still being improved two years after its roll-out.

But First, Some History

La Madeleine got its start nearly 25 years ago when Patrick Esquerré, a Frenchman living in Dallas, decided to recreate the look, feel and taste of the boulangeries of his Loire Valley childhood.

He succeeded. La Madeleine’s loyal following—customers tend to be upscale, 25 and older, female and well educated—propelled the neighborhood bakery from its first store in 1983 to more than 60 by ’99. But the challenge lay in keeping continuity from store to store. Stores were opened in existing spaces, in all kinds of footprints, with little in common beyond the salad/soup/hotplate line and the bakery.

“In the beginning, the design of many bakeries was a function of adapting to the existing space within the four walls,” says Richard Hodges, senior director of training and development. “Lines would run in different directions, in different lengths. There’s even a store in New Orleans that was built in a former gas station, with only four parking spaces. The store is very successful and charming, but a challenge to operate. 

Development progress returned in ’01 when the chain was acquired by an ownership group including Paris-based Groupe Le Duff, owner of about 300 La Brioche Doree bistros. In ’02, La Madeleine’s new owners brought in Wally Doolin, former president of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, to organize a new leadership team and lead La Madeleine out of debt and back into growth mode. Doolin closed weaker stores, reduced the chain’s six commissaries to two and ended the company’s wholesale bakery business.

In ’05, with Doolin moving on to manage another chain, La Madeleine tapped CFO Greg Buchanan from the new leadership team to step up as president. By this time, a workable prototype was already being built, and La Madeleine had moved back into growth territory.

Ordering Goes Wireless

With 60 existing units in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., La Madeleine is focused today on the development of freestanding buildings.

Version one of La Madeleine’s current prototype—the company’s first new location since ’99—debuted under Doolin’s watch in ’04. Two of the 5,200- sq.-ft. stores were opened in Houston and The Woodlands, Texas, followed quickly by three more prototypes near Dallas.  

Then last fall, the Rockwall store opened to record-breaking sales. The 5,300-sq.-ft store has the capacity to do $3 million in sales per year. And now Team La Madeleine is working on a more compact 4,700-sq.-ft. version. 

“We’re taking the best of the Rockwall prototype and blending in aspects of our successful core prototypes with less square footage, to come up with a profitable model for next year,” Hodges says.

With the help of consulting firm Deterministics, Kirkland, Wash., Team La Madeleine identified elements from existing stores that needed tweaking. For example, the team found that ordering quick-service and cooked foods from the single serving line presented challenges. Under the old system, guests moving through the line could order prepared food such as quiche and soup plus hand-tossed Caesar salads. Or they could place an order for a hand-made sandwich or a sautéed item, at which time they would receive a lettered wood block to take to their table and wait for it to be brought out.

“Our guests have told us that we’re kind of hard to figure out,” Hodges says. “Our challenge is to keep the appearance of our quaint ordering system, while making it more efficient.”

A wireless handheld device and ordering system, first implemented at a La Madeleine store in Plano, Texas, has largely ironed out the slowdowns that came with placing quick-service orders and cooked food orders on the same service line.

Under the new set-up, a host greets the guests at the front of the bakery and assists with ordering. Those who want sauté or sandwich items now order directly from the host, who uses a handheld device to transmit the order to the kitchen. Guests who want quick-service items head straight for the serving line.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, as orders come through they’re displayed on large monitors showing a count-down clock. When the order is nearly due, the numbers turn yellow, then red.

“Timing is everything, and now, regardless of the order process used, all guests will have their food shortly after they sit down,” Hodges says.

The Deterministics study found that by adding the handheld system, stores were able to decrease cashier transaction times by about 20%, or eight seconds per transaction—numbers that translate into a capacity increase of up to $224 per hour.

Sleek New Look For Soup And Salad

Another sea-change was a total revamp of La Madeleine’s classic soup and salad station—one of the most labor- and maintenance-intensive areas. The old salad station featured heaped beds of ice holding bowls of fresh ingredients. Soups were served out of heated kettles sitting on the counter. Hotplates held the store’s signature quiches. Surrounding the soups and salads was a rustic-looking wood frame holding the sneeze guard. Countertops were made of lacquered wood.

The La Madeleine prototype team replaced the icy salad bed and the wood framing—ice plus wood being a Bad Combination—with a chilled granite-top display arrangement. Cut-outs in the granite top hold bowls in place, and black ceramic dishes keep food temperatures low.

“The product stays fresher longer, and it’s easier for associates to attend to guests,” Hodges says.

The soup station earned the granite treatment as well. Formerly ladled out of small heated kettles sitting on counters, soup is now served from heated containers set into cutouts in the granite top.

“Even for something as basic as ladling soup, it’s easier to reach down than up,” says Susan Dederen, senior director of research and development and a 16-year La Madeleine veteran.   

Controls for the soup station are built into the side of the station, and the dial system shows at a glance the settings of each kettle. An indicator light glows when the temperature is on target, although staff regularly monitors food temperatures with digital thermometers.

Faster, Better Ovens Step Up

The hot sandwiches and bistro-style entrées—complicated-sounding creations such as Salmon with Caper Sauce, Chicken Crepe Riviera or Shrimp Crepe Florentine—caused their own bottlenecks. A few key changes in the equipment line-up made a big difference.

The team augmented the kitchen’s three convection ovens with a speed-cook oven, a unit that combines microwave and convection functions and is dedicated to sandwiches and quiches.

“The speed oven’s microwave heats the food through, while the convection part crisps the bread for a hot, toasty sandwich,” Dederen says. “And a quiche that would take 20 minutes in a conventional oven is ready in 4 minutes.” Thus, the new oven has helped improve hot entrée production times by as much as 200%.

Another through-put upgrade came by increasing the size of the range. The new one is a step-up model that has three burners in front, three in back. And two levels, too: the back section is about 5” higher so “workers don’t have to reach across open flames,” Dederen says.

Meanwhile, In The To-Go Section…

The through-put study also revealed just how many steps were being taken by employees in the patisserie and to-go section. Far too many steps, as it turned out, which wasted energy and took time away from customer service.

The solution was as easy as knocking a hole in the wall—a hole in the form of a pass-through window, that is. The window opens to the sandwich-sauté station; when the order is ready, the kitchen expeditor simply hands it through to the bakery worker.

“Although we came up with the to-go station design internally, the study helped us quantify the number of steps the associates were making,” Hodges says. The study also helped the team look at through-put changes that came from adding a second terminal, or more employees to a station.

The pass-through window arrangement makes it easier for guests to order meals-to-go from the patisserie counter. The pass-through and other equipment enhancements such as added refrigeration and soup wells make the station more efficient for the associates by reducing the total number of steps needed to process to-go orders.

Transparent Dining Room Tweaks

While the prototype’s kitchen size has remained fairly consistent in term of equipment package and layout, the front of house has been evolving in various ways with each subsequent location. La Madeleine’s design team has experimented with beverage stations, seating, dining room look and layout, to name a few points, says Ted Young, construction director.

The early prototypes, opened in ’04, included a fully dedicated barista bar in an effort to increase beverage sales.

“The bar served specialty coffee drinks, beer and wine,” Young says. “But when we analyzed the results and layout, we realized it pushed our core signature bread and pastry displays out of the guests’ direct view. So the next generation of prototype eliminated the beverage bar and made the bread display and pastry display much more prominent, right in your face when you walked in.”

The early prototypes also featured a lounge with soft seating. “But that cost us seats [in the dining area],” Young adds. “They weren’t being used the way we thought, which was in conjunction with the barista bar. The beverage bar wasn’t being used enough either, making it a labor issue.”

A few other front-of-house changes that would be transparent to the casual observer include flat ceilings lowered to 9 ft. from 10 ft., for a more intimate, cozy atmosphere; and more wall partitions for the same reason.

The most recent prototype calls for even more wooden beams on the ceiling (wood being an integral part of the look) and more columns. Although it’s all made of real wood, the larger beams and columns are actually hollow.

“We’ve partnered with a millworker who has developed our millwork and wood package. It gives us an authentic look that’s still feasible to build,” Young says.

The overall building height is being taken down a notch, too. “In the Rockwall store, we lowered the building height range to 20 ft. to 22 ft., mainly because of height restrictions in the shopping center, but also as a way to reduce overall cost,” Young says. By comparison, earlier stores had rooflines ranging from 22 ft. to 25 ft.

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