Qdoban Evolution

During the summer of 2008, Qdoba Mexican Grill execs gave themselves a tall order. They needed a new prototype for the quick-casual fresh-Mex chain, one that would enhance both service and food quality while also updating design themes without confusing identity. On top of that, the proto’s design elements had to be modular enough to support existing store remodels, cost-neutral and compatible with older Qdoba stores in the same market.

The resulting prototype, developed with Columbus, Ohio-based design firm WD Partners, has become the model for both future Qdobas and system retrofits. The first prototype opened in August 2009 in Centennial, Colo. Today, of the more than 500 Qdobas in 43 states, about 30 are the new model.  

“Our old look was a combination of input from many people over many years,” says Peder Kruger, v.p. of real estate development for the Wheat Ridge, Colo.-based chain. “With our new store, we were able to take an integrated approach to brand execution, from back- to front-of-house to the exterior.”

“Very rarely will a company let you manage brand evolution or enhancement at the same time as developing a new look for the restaurants,” adds Kruger, who in his past life led brand overhauls for such companies as Boston Market and Roundtable Pizza. “In this case we were able to develop Qdoba’s artisanal brand message while tweaking both menu and facility.”

Three Parameters Guide Design

Qdoba’s first step in the process was to engage outside eyes in the form of WD Partners to conduct an engineering analysis for the restaurant’s overall operations.

“We gave them the task of working simultaneously with our brand, operations and architectural departments,” Kruger says. The design teams shuttled between group meetings in Colorado and Ohio, getting input from Qdoba operations people as well as marketing and franchisees.

Throughout the process, the teams worked to meet three over-arching parameters for the new prototype:

·         The design elements had to come in the form of a kit of parts—a modular approach that would let key elements be retrofitted into existing stores as needed.

·         The new design  had to be cost neutral—i.e., the new prototype should have the same investment requirements as the previous model.

·         The prototype had to complement existing décor of stores in the same market so as not to create a disconnect for customers comfortable with the existing design.

The WD analysis was thorough to say the least. Everything that could be measured was measured–production metrics, number of steps between pieces of equipment, square footage for equipment and so on. The analysis showed that the store’s basic floorplan, equipment layout and traffic flow worked efficiently. Even so, designers worked to tweak the proto into higher performance on all fronts.

From an equipment standpoint, the biggest changes included adding extra prep space along the makeline to better communicate Qdoba’s artisan-food message. Guests can now watch workers smashing avocados into guacamole, or chopping tomatoes for salsa, for example. Another way of focusing attention on the made-to-order food was to add a wall behind the make-line to visually frame the grill while pushing some of the less romantic processes and equipment into the background. The equipment layout, however, remained unchanged.

‘Kit’ And Caboodle

Qdoba’s modular approach to the front-of-house design was created with its existing 500+ store operators in mind. The “kit of parts” would not only help emphasize the chain’s fresh, artisan-food message, it would also let franchisees add new finishes while retaining existing furnishings—or vice versa—or both.

The kit includes furnishings, finishes and fixtures. The most obvious elements can be spotted quickly by loyal Qdobans—er, customers—when they walk through the door. The proto’s warmer, more welcoming feel starts with the dark wood-laminate tabletops with dark and light wood chairs (replacing stainless tabletops and blond wood/black metal chairs). All booth seat-backs are covered in a single color (the earlier versions were multi-hued). Service areas are done in solid-surface countertops atop wood cabinetry. The prototype’s floors include 12″ square quarry tiles in the dining area and wood-look tiles along the queue line (replacing the carpet/tile combo of earlier stores), for a more contemporary look, not to mention easier cleaning and maintenance.

And instead of the previous colorful mural adorning the wall along the queue area, that wall is now painted in the chain’s signature terracotta red and hung with up to 50 individually framed sepia-toned photographs. The photos, which can be arranged to enhance any store layout, help convey Qdoba’s new artisan message through images of its kitchens, fresh ingredients and old-world Mexico.

Menu Board Upgrades

Other kit elements are apparent only to Qdoba’s more observant visitors. These include a new menu-board system, ceiling panels, an HVAC tweak and improved lighting. 

Qdoba’s new menu board is a two-part deal aimed at speeding traffic flow. The first step can be found just inside the store entrance in the form of a “pre-menu” board. The tilted panel display, set at counter-height in a small alcove at the beginning of the queue alley, gives Qdoba newbies a chance to figure out what they’ll order before they reach the counter—without blocking traffic. It’s also a place for the store to promote any special meal deals going on that week and offer printed carryout menus.

“Managers in new markets have noticed customers stopping at the alcove to read the menu,” Kruger says. 

The second part involves the main menu boards, located above and behind the prep line. Instead of the standard bulkhead-style display, the new version consists of a series of eight individually adjustable panels. Each panel is suspended from a perforated stainless steel runner attached to the ceiling. The panels at the start of the order line are closest to the back wall; each successive panel is a little farther away from the wall and tilted toward customers in line so each can be seen more easily from a distance before the customer has to make decisions. Adjustable spotlights make each panel “pop.” Best of all, it’s “easy to retrofit into existing stores,” Kruger notes.

Dining Space Improvements

In an acoustically friendly move, Qdoba designers added accent beams suspended below the exposed ductwork. The easily installed beams—done in green-stained, wood-grain material—help reduce noise while serving as visual elements.

Also adding to guest comfort is an HVAC tweak currently being tested in a handful of stores. Tucked above the beams and nearly invisible against the black-on-black ductwork is a billowy perforated 2′-diameter nylon tube stretching from one side of the interior to the other. The multiple perforations in this unusual HVAC element allow conditioned air to gently waft throughout the room with no cold spots. The system has lower installation and maintenance expenses, Kruger says. “We’re looking at its lifecycle costs before making this the standard spec.”

Cost Neutral

While Qdoba’s kit of parts may seem to carry a higher price tag, in fact the overall cost for opening new stores is very close to the total cost of the previous model. The Centennial, Colo., store was only about 5% more expensive to open than existing units, according to Qdoba CEO Gary Beisler, quoted in an article about the prototype. And that construction-cost difference will edge down toward zero as more stores are built, he added.

“In some areas we used more expensive materials, in other areas, less expensive. Overall, we expect that over the life of the restaurant, costs will average out to be about the same between the prototype and older stores,” Kruger notes.

As examples, he cites the tile floors–which despite being pricier than carpet, will pay for themselves thanks to lower cleaning and maintenance costs–and sturdier sheetrock ceilings rather than drop ceilings.

In the kitchen, designers saved money by spec’ing “off-the-shelf” equipment as much as possible. For the kitchen walls, they spec’d a textured plastic material rather than more expensive tiles. And in the dining area, they reduced the number of light fixtures to decrease installation and maintenance costs. New-store dining areas use a combination of CFLs and LEDs to save energy.

Plays Well With Existing Stores

Last but hardly least, the third parameter or requirement called for the new store design to complement the look of existing stores rather than make them look dowdy by contrast.

In addition to the menu lineup, designers point to at least four key characteristics that link older stores with the new model: They all employ the same circulation flow; the interiors and some exteriors all feature design elements done in Qdoba’s signature terracotta red; all stores have the same tile floor (new ones with all-tile, older ones with tile and carpet); and all stores have at least two original sculpted cement artworks by Ralph Prada.

Those elements, plus of course a dynamic menu of made-to-order fresh Mexican-themed food, are expected to keep Qdoba customers coming back for a long time to come.

MENU/SEGMENT: Quick-casual “fresh-Mex”
HEADQUARTERS: Wheat Ridge, Colo.
AVERAGE FACILITY SIZE: 2,200-2,400 sq. ft.
EXPANSION PLANS: Opening 30 to 40 units in 2010

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