Foodservice Equipment Reports

UNIT DESIGN: Pickle’s New Prototype

When Spicy Pickle executives decided to morph the Denver-based concept from a sub sandwich shop to a fast-casual eatery, every aspect of the brand—from menu and décor to kitchen, layout and even footprint size—got an overhaul.

The Spicy Pickle Sandwich Co., as it’s now called, opened its first new prototype restaurant in Houston in May 2011. Its features include more seating in a larger footprint paired with a smaller, more efficient open kitchen. Not only has the revamped kitchen lowered labor costs, the proto’s overall cost-to-build has been reduced by about 30% compared to previous models. Better yet, revenues and profits at the prototype Pickle stores are “significantly higher” than those at existing stores, according to execs at the publicly held company.

The Spicy Pickle’s proto will drive growth for the foreseeable future, spokesfolks say. The nearly 30-unit chain expects to add at least eight new Spicy Pickle restaurants in ’12, including two international units in Canada and Qatar.

The Pickle’s Proto Path

The path to the Pickle prototype started in mid-’10 when the chain found itself straddling two segments: submarine sandwich shops and fast-casual restaurants.

“Customers were confused,” says Chris Bue, who has served as director of operations for five years. “Where were the $5 foot-long subs? Why were orders being delivered to tables? Rather than being part sub shop and part fast-casual, we decided to re-image and firmly position ourselves as a fast-casual sandwich company.”

The Pickle’s transformation was a yearlong, $1.2-million process that culminated in April ’11. “We conducted research with guests, franchisees, staff, board members, culinary experts, supply chain resources and advertising agencies,” says Spicy Pickle CEO Mark Laramie, describing the process in the company’s most recent annual report. “The result [has been] extensive modernization and improvements in décor, menu development, product quality, operational consistency, cost of entry capitalization expense … and most importantly sales and profitability.”

Open Kitchen, Smarter Layout

The Spicy Pickle’s transformation was led by an in-house team that included Bue, Laramie, Construction Project Manager Brendan Charles and Chief Development Officer Peter Wright. All of the team members had extensive restaurant experience as operators, franchisees and franchisors. They turned to Jeff Baker of the Denver-based architectural firm Design Parameters for drawings.

Goals included creating an open kitchen to better showcase the food’s freshness, a smarter kitchen layout to maximize efficiency, a smaller kitchen footprint to leave more room for seating, and a tighter equipment package to reduce capital costs for franchisees.

“Our goal with the new proto was to bring as much work up front as possible to show customers the high quality ingredients, our scratch recipe preparation, the food made right there in the kitchen,” Bue says of the Pickle’s new open kitchen style. “The old Spicy Pickle kitchen was like a bunker. There was a three-quarter wall behind the order counter blocking guests’ view of the cooking and prep area. All guests could see was the heads of our cooks moving about.” The wall was an easy thing to lose.

The next step was to reformat the kitchen into a smarter layout. The previous kitchen’s layout was long, narrow and generally inconvenient-- “a long galley that ran most of the length of the restaurant,” Bue says. “There was too much running around required of the staff. If they ran out of bread during lunch rush, for example, they would have to rush to the back of the shop for refills.”

The new layout is a series of three boxes—kitchen/serving line, walk-in and prep area.

The kitchen/serving area consists of three lines. <//a>In front is the wrap, soup and salad stations, then the order-taking area with its two POS machines and an ice bin for canned or bottled beverages in front. A corner shelf unit holds bags of chips, while bottles of beer and wine are stored in a small upright refrigerator behind the POS.

The second line holds the panini/deli sandwich station and condiments. This area consists of a 6’-long sandwich prep table with two panini presses on a raised shelf directly above the ingredient cold-holding wells. Cutting boards on either side plus the shared ingredient wells in-between allow workers to use the same equipment to make both deli sandwiches and paninis. Should an order for a hot sandwich come through, heating the protein calls for a simple pass-through to the panini side. No walking required.

Another dual-sided cold-holding well, positioned next to the panini station and directly behind the POS stations, holds side salads as well as the all-important spicy pickles served with sandwiches.

The back line of the kitchen holds the pizza prep table, a double-stacked electric pizza oven, a convection oven for baking breads, the opening to the back-of-house, and a steam holding cabinet for prepared panini items to warm before grilling.

The walk-in cooler/freezer serves as the bridge between kitchen and prep area, and is equally convenient to both. It’s also an upgrade from earlier stores, which relied on a chest freezer to hold product. “In some cases the most-used items were on the bottom of that chest freezer unit, and it was tough to keep organized,” Bue says wryly. In older Pickle shops, the walk-in cooler is all the way at the back, behind the prep area.

Smaller Kitchen, More Seats

Also on the design agenda was to increase revenue potential by boosting the number of seats. This was achieved by both shrinking the kitchen and expanding the overall restaurant footprint.

Older Spicy Pickle stores measure about 1,800 sq. ft. to 1,900 sq. ft. with seating ranging from 35 to 50. In these stores, the kitchen and prep areas occupy about 60% of the total space.

The proto, by contrast, measures 1,900 sq. ft. to 2,200 sq. ft. with seating for about 60 people. Its kitchen and prep area cover a mere 30% of the total space.

“Ideal locations are end-caps with a patio, or an in-line with a front patio,” Bue says. “We’re working on non-traditional development, too, at universities, hospitals and airports.”

Team Pickle achieved such radical kitchen-shrinking partly by the reconfiguration, but also by taking a close look at each piece of equipment and reassessing its value to the new menu. The consolidation resulted in a reduced equipment package of about $55,000 for the proto—about $30,000 less than the approximately $85,000 required to equip previous Pickle restaurants.

Equipment pieces dropped from the prototype’s layout include a third hood, which was made redundant by pairing the panini station with the deli sandwich station; a dough-stretching and tempering machine dropped from the lineup when the chain switched to a flatbread product instead of house-made dough; and three refrigeration units, thanks to consolidation.

Also dropped from the floorplan was the manager’s office. The idea here was to keep managers out front with guests, and also, as a safety issue, to discourage robberies.

At least one notable piece of equipment was added to the list: a flat-screen expo monitor. “The monitor shows all parts of the order and a countdown clock,” Bue says. “The manager can watch the monitor and has a view of all kitchen stations.” The monitor has improved ticket times and order accuracy. By contrast, older Spicy Pickle stores rely on paper order tickets—a system that could become chaotic during rush times. “Some older stores have chosen to implement the monitor system, but at this time it’s not required,” Bue says.

Bonus Points: Labor Savings

The Pickle’s new open kitchen with its three-line layout not only helps motivate the crew, it also saves considerably on labor costs. “Every team member except one faces forward toward guests,” Bue says. “Now that they’re subject to review by guests in real time, they take more pride and also more care in what they’re doing.”

More to the point, by consolidating and repositioning stations, one person can now produce the entire menu from the back position with minimal steps. The change has cut Spicy Pickle staffing needs nearly in half. “The older restaurants need six people for the lunch shift and three or four for dinner,” Bue says. “The prototype can operate with three or four during the lunch hour—and we’re talking busy hours—and then only two during dinner.”

Front-of-House Upgrades

Changes were also made to the Pickle’s queue line, floor and ceiling to give it a more welcoming environment.

To reinforce the Pickle’s “fresh food, bold flavors” brand message, the walls along the queue line now include shadow-box-style frames holding shelves of food product—artichoke hearts in olive oil, roasted red pepper, balsamic vinegar and more. Between the boxes, framed photos of mouth-watering food fill in the gaps. A flat-screened TV above broadcasts the Food Channel. “The whole purpose of the wall is to reinforce the Pickle’s culinary experience,” Bue says.

Designers tweaked the décor by adding exposed brick areas to the walls (“it’s less industrial,” Bue notes). Flooring in high-traffic areas was changed to tile instead of stained concrete. The carpeting in the seating area was changed to a darker color for “easier maintenance,” Bue says. The butcher block tables were given a darker finish to complement the brick, the wainscotting and wood trim.

Cost savings with the ceiling involved switching to a drop-ceiling rather than an open version. “Ductwork for the open ceilings is expensive and hard to maintain,” Bue says. “It gets cobwebby, collects dust and lets hot air stay at the top of the room. And it costs a lot to paint.” The drop ceiling wins points for its ease of installation, sound improvement qualities and lower cost.

Looking Ahead

The sky’s the limit for Spicy Pickle. The company plans to be doing more international and domestic expansion, relying on the prototype to move them firmly into the fast-casual segment and far, far away from the $5 sub sandwiches. Since the first proto opened last May, Spicy Pickle has opened five more units.

When asked about tweaks to the proto, Bue mentioned some color changes here, or shelving changes there. But then he went straight to the point. “We hit the ball pretty hard and straight,” Bue says, smiling. Straight into the land of Spicy Pickle Sandwich Co.


MENU/SEGMENT: Fast-casual gourmet sandwiches


NUMBER OF UNITS: 29 in 10 states

PLANS: Approximately 8 openings in 2012

PROTOTYPE: 1,900-2,200 sq. ft.

SEATING: 60-80 seats

FF&E: Approx. $141,000

ARCHITECT: Jeff Baker, Design Parameters, Denver


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