Foodservice Equipment Reports

UNIT DESIGN: Tom & Eddie’s High-Tech Burgers

At Woodridge, Ill.-based gourmet burger start-up Tom & Eddie’s, technology is the secret sauce driving the concept’s success. Tom & Eddie’s digital assists includes customized order-tracking software used throughout the kitchen, specialized timers and even iPhone apps. The restaurant also relies on an array of smart equipment choices and a step-saving layout—all of which supports a menu filled with mouthwatering gourmet burger choices.

Tom & Eddie’s was the brainchild of Ed Rensi and Tom Dentice, two retired guys who, well, used to run McDonald’s. Rensi, who began his Golden Arches career working the grill, retired as McDonald’s-U.S. CEO in 1998. And Dentice, who started as a management trainee, rose to be McDonald’s executive v.p. in charge of operations, training, franchising, construction, real estate and purchasing before he hung up his spatula.

Fast-forward 13 years. Rensi spent his post-McDonald’s time developing a NASCAR racing team. When a NASCAR friend floated the idea of opening an upscale burger shop, Rensi reached out to his former colleague and enlisted him in the venture. The pair then recruited Dentice’s son, Tony, to head up operations and menu development. Tony, who gained management experience at McDonald’s before branching out as an area developer for various franchises, had a strong background in operational software systems, kitchen design and layout.

In 2009, the first Tom & Eddie’s opened in Lombard, Ill., featuring burgers dressed with such ingredients as Granny Smith apples, caramelized onions and Brie, sandwiches made with edamame, and a seafood special starring ahi tuna and wasabi mayo. Check averages reflected the gourmet ingredients by hovering in the $11 to $12 range. So successful was the first store that a second opened in Geneva, Ill., followed by locations in Deerfield, Ill., and Vernon Hills, Ill. The fifth Tom & Eddie’s will open in fall 2012 in Naperville, Ill. Plans are in the works for the sixth store opening in Schaumburg, Ill.

“We’d like to have 10 stores open by ’14,” Dentice says, looking ahead to a future that includes franchising. “At least 10. Maybe more.”

While Dentice declined to share revenue figures for the privately owned enterprise, he did admit that “we’re more than hitting the projections we made when putting this thing together.”

Technology With A Side Of Fries
The Tom & Eddie’s team had two goals as they set about developing the new concept.

“We wanted a compact, efficient kitchen, streamlined to operate with the fewest possible steps,” Dentice says. “And we wanted to use technology where we could. It makes things more efficient, more effective. Things are cooked the same way every time. From register to grill to server, everyone knows what needs to be on the plate.”

The systems that give Tom & Eddie’s the technological edge are made by Long Range Systems, NCR and FastTimers. And an iPhone app developed by NCR’s Host Solutions Group allows Tom & Eddie’s management to track operations and sales in real time.

First up: customer interface. Staff can track where customers sit after ordering to ensure faster food delivery. They use a system comprised of 6”-long, perforated plastic keys that insert into base units on the tables. The system is manufactured by paging-device supplier LRS. After the order is rung up, the cashier activates the key to start timing the order. Then the guest is handed the key and is asked to insert it in the base at whatever table he or she selects. With the connection made, servers head directly to tables with food orders.

“The base sends out a radio signal that lets servers know that, say, order 22 goes to table 54,” Dentice says. “Servers aren’t walking around the dining room letting your food get cold while they search for your number.”

At the expo table (the company’s term for the expediting station), the key also triggers a count-down timer on a flat-screen monitor. “If order 22 happens to take longer than our goal, the order line on the monitor will turn yellow, then red,” Dentice explains. “It lets us keep an eye on the progress of all the orders at once.”

The base units also help build sales and improve guest satisfaction via a button that allows guests to summon servers for extra service. Bases also serve as mini-marketing boards, encouraging guests to try the beer or indulge in dessert.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, “built-in technological redundancies help coordinate the entire cooking and serving team,” Dentice says.

The food items that make up each order are parsed into precisely timed steps and the information is sent to monitors and printers at key stations. This software was jointly created by POS system and equipment suppliers Aloha Technologies and Radiant Systems—now part of NCR—for use in full-service restaurants. Tom & Eddie’s is among the first fast-casual clients to take advantage of the technology.

“We’ve timed exactly how long it takes to cook each item,” Rensi explains. “If the order includes a four-minute grill item and a two-minute grill item, the Aloha system will use visual cues and beeps to tell cooks when to start each item, and when to put the fries in. In a perfect world, everything would be plated within seconds of the food coming off the grill. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

The grill and fry stations feature touch-screen monitors that guide cooks as to the exact timing and ingredients they will need for current and upcoming orders.

“The cook will see an order flash on the screen,” Dentice says. “He pulls the product he needs and touches the screen to start the order count-down. The monitor beeps to tell him when to flip the burger. It’ll beep again when he’s supposed to add cheese and season it, and it’ll beep one more time when he’s supposed to pull it from the grill. When the order is finished, he touches the screen to indicate it’s been filled.”

Timing Is Everything
Programmable FastTimers on the make-line (where grill items get “dressed”) are another way to ensure consistency and speed in food production. FastTimers make the make-line efficient. There, a printer rolls out individual sandwich build tickets that travel with each item on rectangular metal trays and cue line cooks on exactly how to build each burger.

“I can create assembly instructions with as many steps as needed and each step can be customized with images if needed, as well,” Dentice says. “You program the menu item name, the steps, the time needed to complete each step, and a ringtone for when each step is complete.” FastTimers are integrated into the fryers as well.

“We have a process for every food item, across the entire kitchen,” Dentice sums up.

Durability & Training
A busy commercial kitchen is a tough place for the electronic component of technology, which is why the placement of the touch-screen monitors—especially the ones at the grills—has changed. “Currently we’ve got the monitors mounted closer to the front of the counter, away from the hot exhaust air going up the back of the grill,” Tony says.

Monitor positioning has been a work in progress. Earlier placements resulted in cords “getting burned through by the heat and shorting out, or the monitors got covered in grease,” Dentice says. “In some instances, we raised the screen; in others, the screen was too high for certain cooks, so we lowered it.”

The present set of monitors has lasted seven months so far, up from two to three months for earlier placements, Dentice says. “But they’re only about $90 to replace.”

Logistics aside, a busy kitchen is a good place for technology when it comes to improving communication between workers and management. “With the screens, there’s no miscommunication,” Dentice says.

The monitors also serve as a teaching aid. “Training takes about two weeks from start to finish,” Dentice says. “We’ll start a new worker on an easy station, such as the make-line or the fryers. Then they’ll learn the expo station, and finally they’ll move to the burger griddle, our most complicated station. A lot of our guys have worked kitchens before, so while the technology is new, the work is familiar. They know how to use the griddle.”

There’s An App For That...
The final piece of the technology that ties Tom & Eddie’s together—and allows top management to track sales and processes—is an iPhone app developed by NCR’s Host Solutions Group. The app, called Pulse, “shows sales in real-time, significant comps, voids, who will be getting overtime and sales forecasts,” says Dentice, pulling out his iPhone to demonstrate. The data from the four Tom & Eddie’s locations is updated every 45 mins., giving a real-time screenshot of overall operations.

And if that’s not enough, the app also monitors Tom & Eddie’s social media sites. “It’ll aggregate all the comments from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yelp so we can respond as needed,” Dentice says.

Tom & Eddie’s will soon add two new smart-phone apps to their arsenal. “One is an order app that’ll let customers place advance orders using their phones,” Tony says. “Another app, Shift, will allow employees to more easily trade hours with each other. Of course, the manager has to approve all trades—you don’t want your cashier to switch with your grill cook,” Tony laughs.

The team tracks customer satisfaction digitally via Tom & Eddie’s loyalty cards. “When one of our loyalty card members swipes their card at a restaurant, they’ll get an email the next morning asking how we did,” Tony explains. “If they score us at high levels, we’ll post their comments on our Facebook or Twitter feeds. But if the score is low, we’ll send them an email to apologize and ask how we can do better next time.”

BOH Highlights
Back-of-house equipment highlights of Tom & Eddie’s include steam-powered griddles, smart fryers, a well-equipped prep kitchen and a mezzanine storage area.

When choosing equipment, the team made efficiency and consistency priorities. Take the two 3’-wide griddles, for example. The steam-powered units—in which a heating element creates high-pressure steam in a chamber under the cooking surface—provide even cooking temperatures across the entire surface of the griddle.

“The edge-to-edge temperature variance is about 4°F, as compared to as much as a 50°F variance for conventional griddles,” Dentice says. “With a lot of griddles, you have to flip patties onto a new spot rather than keeping them in one place to keep the same level of heat. This grill, where the temperature is always the same, gives us productivity in a smaller space.”

One low-tech tool in the consistency department is a burger press—a flat piece of stainless steel with a handle on one side and stubby 3/4” legs on other.

“Our burgers start out as balls of ground beef,” Dentice says. “The presses ensure that every patty is flattened to the same thickness. Otherwise, if you had one guy pressing harder than another, cooking times would change.”

One griddle is dedicated to beef while the other is used for all other proteins—turkey, chicken, tuna and edamame. Predetermined cooking zones on the second unit prevent flavor transfer. The space between the griddles is occupied by a two-burner induction range, used to fry the eggs called for in some of the sandwiches.

Behind scenes, the prep kitchen is where staffers prepare nearly all sauces, condiments and sides in-house.

“We toast our own croutons, roast the tomatoes, slice the onions and cheeses, make the parm crisps for our salads...” Dentice says. “The only things we buy ready-made are the sweet potato fries and the ketchup.”

The prep kitchen is equipped with a six-pan convection oven, soup warmer/cooker drop-in units, a slicer, two refrigerated work-top tables and a bun rack.

Behind the prep kitchen is the warewashing area, and directly across from it is the entrance to the walk-ins.

Dry good storage, the water heater, the bag-in-box syrup supplies for soft drinks, employee lockers and a washing machine can be found up a flight of stairs in a mezzanine.

“We always prefer to have a second floor,” Dentice says. “It’s free real estate. You only pay to build it, not to lease it.”

Comfortable, Modern Décor
Tom & Eddie’s dining area is as upscale as the burger menu. “One of the criteria I gave the design company, Big Red Rooster out of Columbus, Ohio, was that I wanted a place I could go on Friday nights, with my wife, that’s casual yet comfortable enough to stay and enjoy a glass of wine or beer.”

Seating areas range from tables and booths, to a community table in an alcove with seating for about 10. Finishes include deep orange fabrics, oversized lamp shades hanging above booths, a woven wood lattice adding privacy between seating areas and flower arrangements throughout.

The beverage area sports equipment both cutting edge—a Coke Freestyle beverage machine—and old-timey: a soft drink dispenser serving Moylan sodas. To its left, another shelf adds homey touches with German beer mugs, wine glasses, ceramics and more. Behind the condiment area, the Tower of Taste holds a choice of hot sauces, ketchups and mustards that aren’t part of the standard menu. And to keep kids (of all ages) busy, the Tower of Toys offers pastimes from years gone by: clear tubes filled with beads and tiny hidden treasures, wooden abacuses, and wooden stands holding alphabet blocks.

Looking Ahead
Franchising is definitely on the horizon for team Tom & Eddie’s. New tweaks continue to come with each new store. The next restaurant, opening in downtown Naperville this fall, will be serving all three dayparts. “We’ll add induction cookers and waffle irons to the line-up,” Tony says. “Hotcakes and scrambled eggs on the griddles, and panini presses for breakfast sandwiches.”

Menu boards, too, will continue to evolve. The Vernon Hills restaurant features the company’s first digital menu board from NEC. “We had been spending $600 a pop to update menus in the first three restaurants,” Tony says. “Now we can change menus on the computer, load the file onto a thumb drive and it’s done.” The Geneva store has already been retrofitted with the new boards. All future restaurants will feature them.

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