By: Janice Cha
Fat frenzy. Or should we say, "phat" frenzy? That's one way to describe the buzz around Fatburger. The neon-decorated, jukebox-enhanced, 1950s diner-style burger joint that has served its Southern Cali-fornia clientele since 1952 has developed quite a reputation for being cool.
Happily, that rep translates into significant business. Check averages hover in the $10 range, which adds up to more than $60 million in chain-wide annual sales for the 88-unit, Santa Monica, Calif., company, or about $775,000 per year from a typical 2,200-sq.-ft. store. A growth plan launched in 2001 has increased the number of Fatburger locations from 40 that year to nearly 90 today, with a good 25 more set to open by the end of '07.
Further, Fatburger expects to open as many as 100 additional units over the next five years. More than half of current stores are in California and Nevada.
The reason for Fatburger's success lies partly in the irreverent attitude of the concept; partly in the train-ing of an efficient, friendly staff; and partly in the food. (The editor of www.AHamburgerToday.com described the experience of eating a Fatburger this way: "Like setting out on a motorcycle trip through South America, the wide plains of the Fatburger deliver a new surprise around each turn, its infinite flavors a fun place to explore.")
But if you ask people who are in the know, it's the equipment line-up that makes everything tick. Fat-burger's cookline and store design have been honed to address energy efficiency under the watchful eye of Bentley Hetrick, the chain's v.p. of construction and purchasing.
And, as with any chain worth its salt, making Fat-burger better is "a constantly evolving project," says Hetrick, whose 30-year resume in the restaurant biz includes nearly a decade as operations director for a McDonald's franchisee, six years as an area director for Wendy's, and 14 years with Fatburger, includ-ing three as a franchisee.
"The basic layout hasn't changed, but we're always tweaking to improve time and motion, energy efficiency, and employee and guest comfort," Hetrick says. To date, he has overseen the building of more than 60 Fatburger restaurants.
Feedback is one tool Hetrick uses. "I'm never satisfied with the status quo. I always think there's a better way to do things. Products change, guest counts change, sales volume may increase or decrease, and it all impacts your kitchen capacity and flow," Hetrick says. "When we started this process of getting feedback from the operations and training department, the goal was for the list of improvements after every opening to get shorter and shorter."
Another valuable tool comes from seminars sponsored by local research facilities such as the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif.; Southern California Edison in Rosemead; and Southern California Gas Co.'s Energy Resource Center in Downey.
"They make a fantastic resource," says Hetrick, who has taken courses on energy efficiency updates for items ranging from refrigerators and freezers to lighting to ventilation to maintenance. "It's all free, and a great benefit for operators."
The Equipment That Makes Fatburger Tick
The "Fat" in Fatburger refers to the burger's size, of course. Fatburger restaurants serve dressed-up 1/3-lb. grilled patties, as well as turkey burgers, chili dogs, grilled chicken and "fat" and "skinny" fries. Onion rings are made fresh daily, and milkshakes start with hand-scooped ice cream.
Before we get into the energy-efficient changes made to Fatburger's kitchens, let's first take a look at the equipment that turns out such addictive fare. As you'll see from the floorplan of the Fort Apache store, opened near Las Vegas last October, all the cooking action happens in full view of customers.
For starters, three blenders housed under noise-reducing covers sit directly behind the POS terminals, with ice cream cabinet plus milk and syrup dispensers to the right and a full-sized refrigerator/freezer on the left. A blender-rinsing device sits at the same counter for fast cleans between orders. The number of blenders was bumped up from two in order to keep up with demand, Hetrick says.
Moving left along the back wall are the two high-efficiency fryers. The fry dump station sits under heat lamps and behind a sneeze guard only a few steps away, in full and tasty view of customers waiting for their orders at the barstool counter.
Then comes the burger station, with its vertical conveyor toaster and 48" steam griddle. The hood covers the cook space, from the wall on the left to the reach-in on the right. On the walls behind, stainless steel quilted flashing adds a retro, yet easy-to-clean element to space. ("It's been in the Fatburger design forever," Hetrick notes.)
Opposite the griddle, two refrigerated prep tables and a food warmer, all in full view of customers, hold sandwich fixings. Wraps, bags and other disposables are stored in nooks along the sneeze guard/shelf for easy access. Order monitors con-nected to the POS system face the prep table, fryers and griddle.
Out of sight are dry storage, cold storage, an ice cream cabinet, power-wash sink, water filter, car-bonated beverage equipment and the office. The ice machine condenser and walk-in refrigeration rack are remotely located on the roof.
Good Hood Hunting
Fatburger's four key pieces of equipmenthood, griddle, fryers and blendershave all been tweaked for efficiency and reliability over the past few years. Let's take a look at each, starting with ventilation.
Grill-centric restaurant operatorsespecially those in Southern California, where air-quality regulations fly fast and furioustend to pay close attention to new developments in hood technology. Fatburger is no exception.
Many of the lessons Hetrick applies at new Fat-burger locations come straight out of the FSTC's Commercial Kitchen Ventilation seminars. Two of them involve effluent capture and make-up air.
First, effluent capture. Generally speaking, the greater the hood overhang, the more effluent can be captured. Don Fisher, of Fisher-Nickel Inc., operator of the FSTC, and other FSTC engineers say the ideal hood overhang should be at least 12", but ideally 18", with no gaps on either side.
"We typically position the cookline so as to slot the hood between the wall and a full-sized refrigerator," Hetrick says. "Based on Fisher's recommendations, we may also be adding an adapter panel to close up the space between the top of the refrigerator and the ceiling." In layouts where the hood must be in-stalled with an open end, adding a partial side panel is enough to limit the smoke escaping into the kitchen and restaurant.
Fatburger's second FSTC-inspired hood adjustment involves make-up air. The goal, according to FSTC suggestions, is for return air to enter the cooking area gently to avoid air currents that interfere with the hood's ability to capture effluent. Accordingly, Hetrick has changed Fatburger hood specs to in-clude a "perforated perimeter supply plenum"a fancy ventthat allows the air to waft gently over the cooking space.
The same challenge can crop up with conditioned air entering the kitchen area around the hood when it's delivered through a four-way diffuser. Here, Fatburger's hood specs eliminate the four-ways in favor of perforated supply diffusers. The small change also stopped the problem of cold air blowing onto just-cooked product, equipment and employees, Hetrick notes.
Hetrick has also been testing and looking into new ventilation technology, one for energy efficiency and the other to meet stricter environmental regulations.
On the energy-efficiency front are variable-speed hood fansfans equipped with sensors that auto-matically increase the hood's speed as cooking levels increase. Hetrick has installed these at six stores, and he estimates this change should lead to a 10% drop in exhaust fan energy costs per year.
Hetrick is also looking into an even more high-tech option involving ultraviolet-enhanced hoods. UV light technology can convert grease molecules into water, carbon dioxide and mineral acids, and thus eliminate grease entirely.
"More municipalities are starting to require environmentally friendly ventilation filter systems that strip away smoke, smell and grease," says Hetrick.
Not every new hood test works out. At one store, Hetrick installed a new model that was supposed to extract more grease so the filters would not have to be cleaned as often. What the manufacturer failed to communicate in advance, however, was that this model required a certain type of warewasher to clean the filters.
True, the hood did perform as promised, but "we didn't have space to add a power-wash sink. Now the employees are stuck washing the filters by hand," Hetrick says. "It's a pain."
Griddles, Fryers And BlendersOh My!
The bulk of the Fatburger menu is made on three categories of equipment: steam griddle, high-efficiency fryers and blenders. For all of them, Hetrick requires performance, reliability and energy efficiency.
Otherwise, chaos rules. "You get a massive lunch hour rush, and the temperatures start to slip. Cook times get longer, employees become unhappy and customers can't wait," Hetrick says. "When the equipment can't keep up with demand, it's the same as putting a governor on your car engine that limits your speed."
The seminars from the FSTC, SoCal Gas and SoCal Edison all help keep Hetrick and team up to date on the newest developments. The steam griddle is a prime example. When Hetrick saw test results in 2003 from the gas company lab about the unit's performance, consistent temperatures and speedy recovery time, he was hooked immediately. Since then, all new stores use steam griddles.
And the research continues. The FSTC is now run-ning performance and efficiency tests for Fatburger on space-saving on-demand tankless water heaters, using three manufacturers' models installed sequentially at one location.
Customizing equipment to make work go more smoothly for employees is another of Hetrick's spe-cialties. For instance, he negotiated with a fryer manufacturer to build in a slot to store the fryer lid during operating hours. Another fryer tweak came from retrofitting equipment at older stores, in the form of a custom-made split holding bin for fat fries and skinny fries, sized to fit the existing footprint.
In the griddle area, simple changes such as adding scraper holders and a spot for tongs all save time for workers and boost food safety. The next challenge is figuring out how to adjust grease troughs to make them easier to empty without spilling.
Another simple change is building in back-up, as with blenders, which are used almost nonstop during warm months. Each store now has three blend-ers, up from two per store a few years ago, "to avoid over-working any one unit," Hetrick says.
Outfitting The Front Of House
Like its menu, Fatburger's look takes inspiration from traditional roadside burger standsbut then goes far beyond in the execution.
At the Fort Apache store, the first thing you might notice is the "restaurant within a restaurant" look. A corrugated metal roof-type above the counter, com-plete with neon signage blinking out "Last Burger Stand," looks as though a burger stand has been dropped into a '50s-era dining room.
Fatburger's newest interior design package features a wider variety of seating (two- and four-person booths plus high-tops), wall murals featuring the food and pithy Fatburger sayings ("Beware of psychic burger placesthe kind that cook your burger before you order it"), and a Web-enabled jukebox that plays 250,000 songs. The colors move away from the bright reds and yellows and into more toned down, aqua-and-deep-red territory. On the ceiling, a hanging red and yellow neon light shaped into the Fatburger diamond logo adds a warm glow at night, while pendent lights dangle over the tables. The floor, should you happen to look down, is smoothly finished stained concrete.
Subtle décor changes include moving the soffit be-hind the registers back substantially so customers don't have to crane their necks to read the menu. Shrouds around the registers hide cords, and make a fine mount for additional menus.
And around the room, 32" flat screen TVsthree or four per storeentertain guests as they wait the six to eight minutes for their orders to be prepared.
"It's the details that go into a space that give guests a good feeling," Hetrick says. "We're trying to position ourselves as quick casual, and the details are what count." And they count in the kitchen, too.