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DESIGN: In The Loop

If you were given a blank sheet of paper and asked to create a new prototype of your already-successful restaurant concept, how would you improve it? That was the opportunity facing owners of the The Loop Pizza Grill, a 14-unit, hand-tossed-pizza and burger chain based in Jacksonville, Fla.

It had been about a decade since the 31-year-old chain’s previous design overhaul. When The Loop launched plans to open a location in Jacksonville’s busy, upscale St. Johns Town Center shopping hub, company execs decided to create a prototype that would become the template for future Loop locations.

The St. Johns Town Center venue gave The Loop’s prototype team two advantages: a plain vanilla shell that let them design from the ground up and a 4,000-sq.-ft. footprint, nearly 25% larger than other Loop outlets.

“The shell allowed us to design the new restaurant with our end goals in mind,” says Loop Director of Operations and Facility Design Chris Hartley. “We could focus on the space as a whole rather than retrofitting a previous restaurant location where we’d have to use existing roof penetrations and utilities.”

The Loop prototype opened for business at the end of November ’12. Thanks to the restaurant’s location in a high-traffic area (“sales-per-square-foot at this mall are said to be among the top five in the country,” Hartley notes) plus its bigger footprint, per-person check averages have averaged $12 to $14, up from about $10 to $12 at other stores. “We anticipate annual volume in the $1.5 million to $1.8 million range for the prototype store,” Hartley says. Typical Loop restaurants, by comparison, generate about $1.2 million annually.

Loop Design Process

The Loop design team included Loop co-founder Mike Schneider and Hartley. The two took the lead on kitchen layout. The Loop’s other co-founder—and designer—Terry Schneider, with Rebecca Davisson of Designmind, Jacksonville, Fla., revised the interior. Dealer Wasserstrom Gen III, Greenville, S.C., handled equipment. The team had three goals in mind as it sat down to draw up plans back in March ’12.

The prototype’s first goal was to better communicate the Loop’s menu variety and food quality. “Our name, The Loop Pizza Grill, emphasizes pizza,” Hartley says. “But we wanted the new look to convey our broader menu, and, despite our counter-service model, show new customers that we’re a cook-to-order place.”

The team addressed this by opening the kitchen so guests standing at the order counter could see the culinary action–cooks tossing pizza dough in the air, searing burgers and tossing salads to order.

The next goal was to offer a wider variety of seating. “More user-friendly, with booths, freestanding tables and community tables to accommodate groups of all sizes,” Hartley says, a key need for a 126-seat restaurant located in a busy mall near the entrance to the University of North Florida campus.

The last goal was for longevity. “The prototype features commercial vinyl floors instead of stained concrete, for example.” The coating on concrete wears in high traffic areas and requires upkeep, he explains. Vinyl is tougher as well as acoustically quieter. “We also opted for really solid surfaces such as coated wood and stainless steel,” Hartley says. “We’re building for the long-haul.”

Kitchen Tour

The proto’s 1,190-sq.-ft. kitchen essentially follows the efficient layout and flow of existing Loop restaurants. “Our kitchen has been fairly stable over the past 12 years,” Hartley says.

The Loop kitchen flow is simple and elegant. Its three stations—pizza, the grill hotline and the salad/soup/shakes line—all feed completed food items to the central expo table, which sends finished orders to the pickup counter. (Think of a three-leafed clover—the three stations make up each leaf section, the expo is where the leaves connect and the stem points straight to the POS and pickup counter.)

The Loop pizza station consists of a make table, positioned so guests have a clear view of cooks stretching pizza dough by hand. The staff stores large dough balls in retarding pans and small ones in dough boxes. 

The Loop’s grill cookline, also open to view, includes fryers, a chargrill, a four-top range and a sandwich prep table. A bun toaster, undercounter freezer and staging area round out the station. Like the pizza station, the cookline’s circular flow starts at the make table, heads back to the cookline and then to the expo window.

The third station handles salads, soups and ice cream desserts. Its equipment roster includes a make table, refrigerated table, soup wells, shake machines and an ice cream dipping cabinet. 

The expo counter, at the kitchen’s nerve center, includes a refrigerated case for grab-and-go items and custom millwork needed to add efficiency. “Here, we built a condiment/utensil station into the wall next to the expo counter to make it easy for guests to find what they need without having to search the dining room,” Hartley says. “The station is two-sided for ease of use, and allows our team to easily keep supplies stocked.”

Prep, warewashing and walk-ins are positioned behind the hotline and pizza stations. The walk-ins extend outside the building footprint, maximizing use of the kitchen space.

Kitchen Tweaks & Upgrades

The Loop prototype’s kitchen includes several equipment upgrades and a number of design tweaks. 

The deck oven, in full view of guests, represents the biggest equipment upgrade for Loop. About a year ago, the Loop began testing the current deck oven as an alternative to the conveyor oven that had previously served as the chain’s mainstay. “While the deck oven is more skill-based and labor intensive, we came to the conclusion that it produces superior product to pizzas cooked in our conveyor ovens,” Hartley says. The company began replacing conveyor ovens with the deck oven in October ’11.

While the new deck ovens provide the food quality required by The Loop, they were less flexible. “When we switched to the deck oven, it was hard to do the other items–our bleu cheese chips, for example,” Hartley says. 

As a result, the kitchen cookline now includes a double-deck electric oven. The new oven will be reserved for “fish production, bleu cheese chips and our latest menu debut, creamy French onion soup,” Hartley says. “The electric oven lets us add variety to the menu while still allowing pizza cooks to focus on pizzas, and chargrill cooks to handle the burgers and chicken sandwiches.”

To better support the higher order volume expected with the larger seating area, Hartley increased the size of the grill and pizza oven, and in the dishroom, installed a larger clean-dish table. Investment in kitchen longevity comes with the addition of concrete curbs around the kitchen perimeter walls. “The curbs will prevent water damage to bases of the walls when we’re cleaning,” Hartley says. 

A Look Ahead

The Loop expects to open one new location in ’13. The true focus this year will be on retrofitting about 10 existing Loop restaurants. 

“We’ll be upgrading to deck ovens for sure,” Hartley says. “And pending results of menu testing, we may be adding the smaller electric oven as well. Front-of-house, we’ll be introducing as many prototype décor items as the location’s budget permits, including new seating, menu boards, artwork and more.


FACT BOX

MENU/SEGMENT: Fast-casual pizza

HEADQUARTERS: Jacksonville, Fla.

NUMBER OF UNITS: 14

SIZE: 4,000 sq. ft.

SEATING: 126 seats + 26 patio seats

EQUIPMENT PACKAGE: $151,000

FURNITURE & FIXTURES: $30,500

PLANS: 1 expected opening in 2013

ARCHITECT: Rebecca Davisson, Designmind, Jacksonville, Fla.

DEALER/FABRICATOR: Wasserstrom Gen III, Greenville, S.C.

CONTRACTER: Travis Smith, River City Construction Group, Jacksonville, Fla.

WEB: looppizzagrill.com



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