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December 2008

Happy Houli-days

Ongoing operational and design upgrades to the Houlihan's prototype keep the restaurant chain at the top of its game.

By: Janice Cha

Check out the related article "Equipping Houlihan's."

A smarter kitchen equipment arrangement, computerized order-tracking and more efficient lighting are a few of the recent upgrades that have helped the "Houlihan's of the 21st Century" design stay ahead of the curve.

The now two-year-old design, which also features an upscale décor package, a centerpiece bar, a 75-seat patio dining area and a more compact kitchen, has been proving its worth for the Leawood, Kan.-based 105-unit casual-dining chain. According to Bob Hartnett, Houlihan's CEO, restaurants built following the new design are now averaging $3.5 million in annual sales—considerably more than the $2.8 million system average.

I Love You, You're Perfect—Now Change
The vision for the new Houlihan's design came straight from Hartnett, a 25-year restaurant industry veteran who had worked his way up through such chains as Einstein Bros. Bagels, Bennigan's and Steak & Ale. Although Houlihan's had always successfully revolved around its scratch kitchen, Hartnett recognized that the brand had become "a little bland and in need of re-energizing."

Hartnett brought on board Florida architect Bobby Altman, of Miami-based Altman Architects, to help define the new model. Since then, further tweaks have been handled by the in-house Houlihan's team, with the assistance of Chicago-area architectural firm Chipman Adams, Park Ridge, Ill.

The redesign goal was to "drive a more sophisticated décor by lifting the store away from the old look, with its many artifacts, low ceilings, compartmentalized dining rooms and behind-the-scenes kitchen," says Kurt Thuenemann, design director and the architect in charge of tracking and updating the prototype's evolution for franchised and company-owned locations. These were "all industry trends that we saw happening, and that we were on the forefront of developing as well."

The Houli Cookline, Open For Viewing
The focal point of the prototype's main dining room is now a long window showcasing the culinary action. And since the word "subtle" was not exactly part of the Houli vocabulary, designers added backlit orange Lexan panels between the window and the ceiling to really draw the eye.

Behind that window lies a 2,000-sq.-ft. kitchen geared toward moving prepped food steadily toward the final production area. The prep area, charged with readying bulk foods for final cooking, is essentially a kitchen-within-a-kitchen, complete with a six-top range, pair of freestanding steam-jacketed kettles, slow-cook oven, mixers, food processor and salad spinner, plus work tables and prep sinks. Not surprisingly, the combined prep and storage area together cover about twice as much real estate as the cookline.

Arranged specifically to help workers execute the menu, the cookline compresses everything within easy reach. (By contrast, older Houlihan's kitchens were too large and spread out.) The side facing the long window includes cooking equipment and undercounter refrigerated units, while opposite, on the wall beneath the long window, you'll find cold and hot prep tables for plate assembly.

"Opening the cookline has benefited both our bottom line and customer perception of what we do," Thuenemann says. "We take a lot of pride in our food prep—we've always been a scratch kitchen, prepping everything back of house—but when you can't see [that action], it's harder to sell the story. Having the cookline out front puts a new face on the brand."

One key to production is an automatic oil delivery system running from the fryer bank to a holding tank near the dock area, which helps extend oil life while reducing the risk of hot-oil injury. The system monitors oil levels and use, then automatically pipes out the old oil and replaces it with fresh oil.

Touch Screen For Kitchen Success
One significant upgrade introduced last year –a computerized order-tracking system—has improved efficiency so much it is now being rolled out to other Houlihan's stores.

The system uses a series of LCD touch-screen monitors at each station to track order progress. Cooks can touch onscreen bars to bump orders up or down the line. Implementing the system has cut ticket times to an average of 10 minutes—faster by two full minutes, says David Brown, operations support v.p.

"With everything on the screen in front of them, cooks no longer have to deal with slips of paper that may get lost," Brown says. "The kitchen is calmer and quieter since staffers don't have to keep shouting out orders. And if you want to check a recipe, you can just touch a button to find it, so order accuracy improves, too."

This year, Brown is testing an in-kitchen training program that revolves around the order-tracking system, complete with recipes, cooking procedures and even video clips.

"People seem to learn faster this way," says Brown, "and it's a lot neater and cleaner than training programs used to be." The goal for '09 will be to retrofit existing units with the system, he adds. "That's our big push—the system makes that much of a difference."

Redesign Stretches Out Front
Two other key elements help define the prototype: a bi-level main floor and the exterior treatment.

First, when you walk into the prototype you see a central dining area that is about a foot lower than the entrance level, with gently sloping ramps providing access. For seating variety, booths are placed around the raised perimeter as well as within the lower main dining area.

And second, the building's exterior underwent a makeover that combines plank siding, stucco and cultured stone for a contemporary look. Serving as focal point: an eye-catching aluminum and glass entryway that practically glows at night.

Patios, too, earned a major makeover. They now include fire pits, concrete cast-in-place tables for group seating, about 40 two- and four-top banquettes and landscaping that offers a more "comfortable, natural feel," says Thuenemann.

The revamped patio provides at least two benefits. "The energy generated on the patio can be seen from within the restaurant, and it helps visually expand the interior space," Thuenemann explains. "The patio can also be seen from the street by passers-by, creating more interest in the restaurant."

To Houlihan's surprise, patio dining at prototype stores is so popular that it stays busy well into fall, even in colder areas such as Chicago. In warmer areas, patio heaters have helped stretch the outdoor-dining season up to 10 months.

Houli Lights, Houli Nights
Lighting is one component that has undergone considerable fine-tuning since the prototype's debut. The changes have resulted in both a more dramatic appearance and also energy savings.

First, the drama: "We now use framing projectors to shine light directly on each table," Thuenemann says. The area of light from an MR16 low-voltage light source—anywhere from a concentrated 6-in. patch of light up to about 8-ft. square—can be adjusted with built-in baffles. The edge-to-edge illumination makes tables "seem to float at night, especially against the backdrop of a black porcelain tile floor," Thuenemann adds. Similar light projectors pointed at the walls add visual zing to framed artwork.

And second, savings: Installing dimmer panels for FOH light fixtures has helped trim electricity costs, since managers can now regulate dining room lighting levels as needed. The dimmer also helps extend lamps' useful life.

Further, a move to lower-wattage lamps—using 37W lamps instead of 75W units—has saved energy and money as well. "By concentrating the light on the tables we found that the lumen output [from lower-wattage bulbs] is about the same as from higher wattage bulbs," Thuenemann says.

On the patio, more savings come from lighting small, defined spots rather than large spaces. Thuenemann cites the ground-mounted lights illuminating the undersides of fixed umbrellas and the tables below.

Houli Green: Current And Future
Looking ahead, developing a green initiative is near the top of the to-do list for Houlihan's execs. A number of green initiatives are already in place or being tested, including:

  • Paints, carpeting and fabric containing low-VOC materials.
  • Countertops made from Richlite, a renewable resources product made from layers of paper pulp treated with resin to create waterproof "boards".
  • A white TPO-membrane roof in test at the Castleton, Ind., store. (White TPO membranes have reflectivity ratings in the high 80% range, which is higher than Energy Star's 65% reflectivity minimum for roofing.)
  • A tankless hot water system in test at one franchised store.

A few things under consideration for future stores include adding more LED lights to the mix, installing photovoltaic roof panels to help light signage, and capturing rainwater in underground cisterns for use with landscaping.

A Look Ahead
The sluggish economy has not stopped Houlihan's development. Since '06, the company has opened 15 stores based on the prototype design. The '09 game plan calls for 13 to 18 corporate and franchised openings.

Meanwhile, existing stores in strong markets are getting front-of-house makeovers. At press time, two restaurants in Georgia (Atlanta and East Cobb) and two in Kansas (Leawood and Overland Park) had just been remodeled with a roughly $250,00-per-store investment that updated décor, artwork, carpeting and paint. Equally important for company execs, these stores recorded sales upticks after the work was completed.

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