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August 2007
By: Janice Cha

A quick-service kitchen and mentality provide ay caramba! speed at the full-service Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy.

A visit to an Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy requires no passport. But still you get the distinct feeling of having entered an old world Mexican hacienda.

Each Abuelo's restaurant, which covers a spacious 8,000 sq. ft. with seating for 250, features an open-air Mexican courtyard at its heart. Step through the main archway and you're greeted by the sight of hand-carved statues of famous Mexican leaders, colorful murals inspired by such artists as Diego Rivera, abundant greenery and a cheerful water fountain as the focal point.

The Abuelo's menu, developed by co-founder Chuck Anderson, Operations V.P. Dirk Rambo and Executive Chef Luis Sanchez, is equally transporting. It draws inspiration from regional cuisines from the interior of Mexico, accented with unique sauces, cilantro, lime, avocado and the ubiquitous chiles. But you'll also find familiar Mexican fare: enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, burritos.

While Abuelo's seems to effortlessly give you the experience of leisurely dining at an elegant hacienda, behind the scenes is a quick-service-inspired kitchen that's humming nonstop.

All together, the Abuelo's package—an authentic menu and full-service dining powered by a speedy, efficient kitchen—turns a tidy profit. Revenue at the privately owned, Lubbock, Texas, company has grown from $46 million in 2003 to $107.4 million in '06. Abuelo's Pres. Bob Lin projects more than $120 million for '07.

The concept, now owned by Food Concepts Int'l., has over the past 18 years grown to 38 locations in 15 states. The company has temporarily reined in its growth rate of up to 10 new stores per year in order to focus on refining its management systems for future growth, says Properties V.P. Dickie Overstreet. This winter will see one Abuelo's opening in Chattanooga, Tenn., followed in '08 with new stores opening in Kissimmee, Fla., and Chesapeake, Va.

Kitchen Evolution
Abuelo's started big, then got smaller. Early buildings ranged from 10,000 sq. ft. up to the chain's largest (and fourth) store, a 13,000- sq.-ft., 420-seat restaurant built in a former candy company in downtown Oklahoma City.

"When we first started, we had both space and size in our buildings, so it was pretty easy [to lay out a kitchen with all the equipment we needed]," says Overstreet, who in his nearly two decades with the company has served as equipment specifier, kitchen designer, equipment installer, purchasing and construction manager and just about everything in between. Overstreet, along with Rambo and Anderson, have together designed all of Abuelo's kitchens.

"As we developed into more existing freestanding buildings across the country, the challenge became creating [a kitchen that was] more space conscious and reproducible in any market," Overstreet said.

A challenge indeed. A typical weekend night at the Abuelo's in Abilene, Texas, for example, calls for some 200 meals per hour that generates $3,000 an hour in revenue.

Double Duty, Less Equipment
The current prototype grew out of necessity. Abuelo's kitchens at those early Texas-sized stores averaged nearly 3,000 sq. ft. in size, or 30% of overall footprint, and included a separate batch-cooking area complete with its own set of cooking equipment.

"We started using some of the kitchen equipment for double duty," says Overstreet. "We now do our batch cooking in the morning on the same sauté line and grill that are used for lunch and dinner service."

The change cut a good 700 to 800 sq. ft. out of the kitchens, which today average a much trimmer 2,000 sq. ft.

"If you look at current construction costs of $160 to $180 per sq. ft., we're saving anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per store," Overstreet adds.

Getting double duty out of equipment pieces also makes for better use of staffers. Since they're not spread out as much, they can move from spot to spot and fill positions that need extra hands more easily.

Another fundamental shift to the Abuelo's kitchen design was to abolish the floor-to-ceiling walls that blocked off the kitchen into separate sections. The current floorplan puts equipment against walls about 5 ft. high. The open layout encourages better communication between staff. It also has allowed Abuelo's to largely do away with most storage rooms, since products are stored at individual work stations in refrigerators or on shelves. Restocking is handled by staff at the individual stations.

"You've got a refrigerator for every basic task in the batch cook area," Overstreet says. "Workers should rarely have to go to the walk-in to get anything."

Kitchen Cranks It Out
"Our challenge has been to create a fast-dining concept in a full-service atmosphere," Overstreet says. To meet that goal, the kitchen operates essentially as an assemble-to-order process, albeit with plenty of final cooking, garnishing and careful attention to plate presentations.

A typical day at Abuelo's starts around 7:30 a.m., when workers roll in and begin prepping everything from scratch" from grating cheese to cutting vegetables to slicing meats and frying the chips. The wood-fired grill is emptied of ashes from the day before, loaded with fresh mesquite logs and lit to be ready in time for lunch service. Abuelo's burns through about a cord of mesquite each week (a cord is a wood piled to about 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 8 ft.).

Why wood and not the more traditional, easier to manage gas or electric? "We prefer the flavor that mesquite gives," Overstreet says. "Once the flame is built and coal forms, you have a steady, very hot heat source."

As meal orders start rolling in, the big conveyor oven near the kitchen center becomes key. Prepared hot product is held at 165°F. As plates are assembled, they're run through the conveyor oven, whose 32"-wide belt holds two to three plates at a time. The four-minute trundle through the conveyor heats the food an additional 70°.

That a Mexican restaurant relies on a pizza oven to melt cheese and finish plates might seem unusual, but for Abuelo's, it was a logical choice. "Our cheese-melter was too inconsistent, and slow," Overstreet says.

Walk The Line
|Another key part of kitchen production that has evolved and improved is the custom-built hot-and-cold well line.

"For the early restaurants we would buy a refrigerated base and steam wells, link them together and put shelves over the top," Overstreet explains. "Then we finally had one built to our specs and have been doing it ever since."

The line is 14 ft. long, a straight run with two hot wells, three cold wells, then two hot and two more cold. The line is staffed with "builders," each responsible for a given set of tasks. Tickets for each order are moved along a rail to follow plates as they progress down the line; a corresponding ticket prints out at the expo table, the final kitchen destination for every item of food produced.

Speaking of which, only managers or highly experienced employees are allowed to work the expo table, the 8-ft.-long stainless steel-topped table where every plate, from appetizer to entrée to dessert, lands for finishing touches and a final check to make sure orders are correct before being handed off to the server.

The expo table's only piece of equipment is the order printer POS. Directly behind it is a heated holding cabinet, a refrigerated sandwich station and a pair of hot steam wells holding queso products, soups, guacamole and more.

And In The Supporting Roles We Have...
Other pieces of cooking equipment playing critical supporting roles in the Abuelo's kitchen include the sauté range; double-deck convection oven, used for flans, taco meat and baked goods; and stock pot range for beans, rice and soups. Warming drawers next to the sauté grill hold cooked meats; while heated holding cabinets store taco filling, sauces for the line, vegetables and potatoes, all in pans ready to go out.

Around the corner from the main cookline, a bank of three high-efficiency fryers, used from morning to night, make chips. The kitchen serves up about 300 lbs. (raw weight) of them per day, Overstreet reports. Once fried, they're stored nearby in a freestanding chip warmer. Also supporting the fryer station is a reach-in freezer holding frozen chile relenos, chimichangas, fries, chicken nuggets and also ice cream (which is not fried).

Cleaning Up
The dishroom has earned its share of tweaks, too. In a move to reduce unnecessary water weight in trash bags and to keep drains from getting blocked, for example, Overstreet and Training & Development V.P. Kevin Carroll installed a simple fix: A perforated basket stretched over the top of a long trough sink was added to catch ice, lemons and other bits of food debris.

The arrangement worked so well that it's been added to the prototype model; older stores have since been retrofitted with the system.

The use of the conveyor oven for most of the entrées presents another dishroom challenge. Food residue becomes so baked onto plate surfaces that it's practically impervious to dishwashers. Accordingly, plates go through a two-sink system in which they soak, get scrubbed, and then are racked, sprayed (with a low-flow pre-rinse sprayer) and finally are sent through the dish machine. Afterwards they are allowed to air dry on shelving along the wall opposite the dish machine.

Keeping Energy Costs Somewhat Less High
All that equipment draws a lot of (pricey) power, which is why energy efficiency has been a strategic part of Abuelo's planning for the past 10+ years.

Energy management systems, tracking heating, cooling and lighting and first installed in 2002 as a test, are now officially part of the current Abuelo's prototype. The idea is that tracking average power usage lets operators spot and correct unusual spikes, and also even out energy demand throughout the day. Currently Abuelo's is in the process of adding the system to between five and 10 existing stores.

The importance of energy management became clear more than a decade ago at the Oklahoma City store.

"The city had a summer rate multiplier, in which they'd take your peak demand bill and multiply it by 2.5 in order to bill you at that rate during the summer months," Overstreet recalls. "We saw our electricity bill go from $4,000 to $11,000 in one month—a huge jump. I met with the power company to negotiate some new rates. That was the first location to get an energy management system, on the cooling system so that it would cycle rather than fire all at once. The change smoothed out our peak demand levels quite a bit."

Also, at least four stores are testing other energy-efficient items for heating, cooling, lighting, and soon, refrigeration. Meanwhile, dining area lighting has been switched to compact fluorescents in a number of markets. In Indiana, regulations in Indianapolis and Evansville have mandated the use of CFLs in particular.

And on the water side, "we use low-flow sprayers and faucets," Overstreet says. "We also make sure that leaks get fixed—that's part of our normal maintenance schedule."

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