Foodservice Equipment Reports

UNIT DESIGN: The Lube's Formula One Proto

Everything’s outrageous at Quaker Steak & Lube, from the 20’-high neon “EAT” arrow at the entrance to the motorcycles and classic cars mounted on the walls, ceilings and lifts. Not to mention the giant stacks of wings and onion rings served with fiery hot sauces.  

But what’s even more outrageous was the challenge posed in 2010 by QS&L’s recently arrived President and CEO John Longstreet: Take the company’s successful 9,000-sq.-ft., 405-seat store model, significantly reduce the footprint, cut the cost-to-build by about $1 million, keep roughly the same number of seats, and above all, maintain or improve the annual $4.5 million per-store revenue.

Longstreet’s request was the next step in a logical progression. The Sharon, Pa., casual dining chain started with huge restaurants (11,000+ sq. ft.) back in 1974 and has been gradually downsizing stores over the years.

“As we’ve reduced building sizes, average unit volumes have actually increased to about $4.5 million in annual per-unit revenue,” Longstreet says. “It’s been absolutely amazing to watch.”

With this new design project, the goal was to “reduce the building size, streamline, and get the thing onto two acres because land costs are so crazy,” Longstreet adds. “We wanted to take costs out of the total building process and make it sing a little bit.”

“All great restaurant concepts are the equivalent of stuffing 10 lbs. into a 5-lb. bag,” adds Lube Chairman Mike Stack, who spearheaded the project. “You keep working them over time to make them tighter and tighter.”

The result of the project was a 7,700-sq.-ft., 354+ seat prototype. The first fo the new design is slated open this August in Springfield, Ill. So confident are Lube execs in the new model that five of the 12 planned openings in 2011 will be the new proto. And in ’12, most of the 15 planned openings will be the new model. 

Saving $1 million on a new restaurant project wasn’t easy. Everything got the eye.

“We started by looking at the total project cost, including pre-opening and soft costs,” Stack explains. “Then we reduced the overall acreage and building size while upgrading the equipment package. The balancing act has been to keep the customer counts the same.”

Stack’s design team included Michael Bradnan & Associates, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Pontia Architects, Columbus, Ohio; and a number of franchised and company restaurant operators. David Miller, most recently of Champps, was brought on board as facilities and development v.p. to oversee the actual building process. 

The Cost-Shrinking Chassis

The design team’s started by looking at big-picture cost- and size-cutting methods. Changes were made to the building footprint and property size, HVAC systems, lighting and construction schedule, among other items. Perhaps the two biggest size readjustments involved the building envelope and the property it sits on. The easy part was adjusting the lot size, which was reduced to two acres with parking for 165 cars, from a little over two acres with parking for 180 cars. By contrast, earlier sites required two-and-a-half acres and parking for at least 200 cars.

Shrinking the building involved moving the walk-in coolers, freezers and patio equipment storage to the outside of the building. These units are essentially modular buildings sitting alongside the back of the kitchen, connected by an insulated door leading into the cooler.

“Modular walk-ins are more expensive up-front than traditional walk-ins, but they arrive ready to be offloaded onto a concrete pad. They’re also totally plumbed and with the electric ready to be attached,” Miller explains. “It’s important to educate your contractor in advance about how these units are shipped and installed, otherwise the cost and time savings may not be reflected in their bid.”

“The modular walk-ins also save money by eliminating the need for additional roof penetrations for compressors,” Stack adds.

Next under the microscope was the HVAC system. A smaller building would need less. The previous prototype specs called for eight rooftop units, of varying sizes, delivering a combined 78 tons of heating/cooling ability. The new prototype, which measures about 1,300 sq. ft. smaller than the previous version, can get by with only five units delivering 10 tons each of heating/cooling, for a total HVAC requirement of 50 tons.

The math’s interesting: A 15% reduction in footprint resulted in a disproportionately greater reduction in HVAC equipment, roof penetrations and operating utilities.

“The smaller building, lower ceilings (i.e less air-space to condition), better wall insulation and better garage doors (facing the patios) contributed to HVAC system savings,” Stack says. And since part of the design criteria was flexibility, “our structural steel package allows us to increase air conditioning by another 10 tons if necessary,” he adds.

Explaining To Contractors

Another modular, or pre-fabbed, part of the building specs isin the lighting system. The Springfield prototype will be the fourth Lube location to test a pre-fabbed electric panel box.

“Unlike conventional building wiring, where you hook up all the wires to a panel on the wall, this unit is prewired inside and serves as a connection point,” Miller says. “And like with the modular walk-ins, it’s important to explain this technology in pre-bid conferences with contractors that they understand how much easier and faster this is to install, and can bid accordingly.”

Also on the topic of lighting: the Lube has changed its specs to use LEDs for exterior signage, and CFLs inside.

The result of these changes will yield additional cost savings in the form of faster building time.

“From breaking ground to getting our certificate of occupancy, we expect it will take 120 days,” Miller says, listing the pre-fabbed walk-ins, electric panel and the ability to pre-order the steel package as the major time-savers. By contrast, previous Lube locations have generally required about 180 days from start to finish.

“We think it’s reasonable,” says Stack, who’s overseen more than 200 construction projects throughout his more than 40 years in the restaurant business. “And challenging the contractor to work faster will save him money, too.”

Tuning The Engine

If the building’s the chassis, there’s no doubt what the engine is. The next area for fine-tuning was the Lube’s kitchen. Here the emphasis was on increasing efficiency, through Energy Star-approved equipment and layout changes, rather than up-front cost savings. While the new proto’s equipment package tallies about $500,000—up from the $435,000 of the previous model—planners expect to realize major operational and utilities savings over the life of the restaurant.

Hoods play a big part. “We went from a three-hood to a two-hood arrangement, and opted for low-capture hoods instead of the traditional canopy model,” Stack says. “We spent a lot of time working with the manufacturer to make sure we were making the right choice for our operation due to our heavy frying requirements.”

The low-capture hoods “sit right above the equipment, with space for getting the product in and out,” Stack says. The hoods are positioned over the fryers and broilers in the main cooking battery. A second hood, canopy, is located in the prep kitchen area, covering a convection oven and two-burner range.

“This (hood arrangement ) was a big step forward,” Stack adds. “We were able to drop 2.5 tons of air conditioning with this switch.”

The upgraded equipment itself—including fryers, griddles and broilers, microwaves and the warewasher—also contributes to the operating efficiencies. 

“Everything in the cooking area, plus the warewasher, is Energy Star approved,” says Michael Bradnan, FCSI, the foodservice consultant working with the Lube redesign team.

He points to the upgraded fryer battery as perhaps one of the biggest energy savers. “We’re still using the same brand, but the high-efficiency fryers in the new prototype will burn about 105,000 Btu/hr. vs. the 140,000 Btu used by the older models.” With a seven-fryer battery, that works out to savings of more than 200,000 Btu per hour, a number that will quickly be reflected in lower utility bills.

The upgraded fryers also include automatic filtration, which will extend the life of the oil by as much as 40%. Theoretically, that should save waste too.

The grills and broilers were also spec’ed to high-efficiency, quick-recovery standards. “The grills feature full heat from edge to edge,” Bradnan says, “offering greater cooking capacity along with faster recovery time.”

Microwaves—four in all—were upgraded to higher-wattage, sturdier models. “The new units will heat food in 45 seconds, compared to the two and a half minutes required by the previous microwaves,” Bradnan says. “That’ll boost overall line speed. We also don’t expect to be replacing these quite as often as the previous models.”

Finally, kitchen layout: While the prototype kitchen remains nearly the same size and layout of earlier restaurants, Stack’s team found several ways to make it more use-friendly for Lube staff.

“We trimmed the distance from the back wall of the cookline to the wall of the waitress service station,” Stack says. “We gave cooks a 42” aisle, compared to 48” in older units, so they would have an easy pivot from cookline to chef’s station. The pathway for waitstaff will now be nearly 6’ wide so they have plenty of working and passing room—and it will help them get in and out of the kitchen faster to attend to customers.”

The addition of an employee restroom to the kitchen area, too, will save staff time. “It’s also a requirement in some jurisdictions, so we figured it was better to include it from the beginning,” Miller notes. “Plus it’s a nice added convenience for staff.”

The proximity of the prep kitchen to the Wingo Window continues to make money for the Lube. “We’ve learned over the years that the person working the window can also do other tasks in the prep kitchen, which is why the two are positioned together,” Stack says. “It saves you on labor productivity.”

The Wingo Window quickly pays for itself. “Quaker Steak & Lube was one of the first casual dining restaurants to hang a call-in pickup window on its building,” Stack adds. “We take orders in advance by phone, have them ready in 15 minutes, the customer pulls through and picks up the order. Some municipalities see this as a ‘drive-through’ but there’s no microphone or speaker system outside, so we eliminate the stacking of cars required for quick-service restaurants.”

With its $25- and $40-buckets of wings, the Wingo Window generates up to 10% of food sales at many Lube locations. “It adds up quickly,” Stack says.

The Road Ahead

“Creating this prototype required a lot of cooperation over the past 11 months—from the franchisee community, our company operators, manufacturers, support-center staff and design team,” Stack says. “We’re about 80% of the way toward realizing this prototype. David Miller, with his construction experience, will bring us the rest of way.”

“It’s still a work in process, though,” Stack sums up. “Each new unit is better than the one before it.”


MENU/SEGMENT: Casual dining


NUMBER OF UNITS: 43 in 14 states

PROTOTYPE: 7,700 sq. ft.; 240 dining seats plus 56 bar and 60+72 patio seats front and optional side patio

FF&E PACKAGE: $500,000


PLANS: 12 openings in 2011; 15 in ’12

CONSULTANT: Michael Bradnan & Associates, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

ARCHITECT: Pontia Architects, David Pontia, Columbus, Ohio

INTERIOR DESIGN: Kathy Diamond Design Associates, Phoenix

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