Foodservice Equipment Reports

FER REPORT: Chili’s Lightens The Way

When Chili’s Grill & Bar decided to do a front-of-house lighting makeover at its corporate stores, it was a Texas-sized endeavor. At more than 800 locations nationwide, approximately 200 incandescent and halogen bulbs per restaurant—more than 165,000 in all—were replaced with LED lamps in only nine months. 

The Herculean task of switching Chili’s to LED lamps proved a win-win move for Dallas-based parent company Brinker Int’l. The new lamps—also known as solid-state lighting or SSLs—are saving the company considerably on utility costs. And LEDs’ incredible life expectancy lets Chili’s team members focus on food and guest service rather than bulb maintenance.

Among U.S. chain restaurant companies, Chili’s was an early adopter of the new technology. Kevin Falconer, former senior director of design at Brinker and leader of the lighting changeover project, shared with Foodservice Equipment Reports the background research and rollout details that went into the project. 

Project Timeline

“We started by testing individual lamps at Brinker’s restaurant support center in Dallas and in nearby Chili’s restaurants,” Falconer says. When the chosen lamps proved reliable, “we moved on to a full LED installation—our first beta test—followed by three more installations comparing three different brands of lights.” 

Promising results from preliminary tests and payback analysis led Brinker management to give a green light to a systemwide rollout.

The LED team’s next step was a full market rollout to nine Chili’s restaurants in Austin, Texas, followed by the 55 restaurants in the Dallas market. After that, the project expanded nationwide. 

“Soon we’d completed LED installations in all corporate restaurants,” Falconer says. “At that point, we began offering the LED option to franchisees. We haven’t mandated the change because even though we feel the LED lights improve the look of the dining areas, they do require a significant capital investment. Some franchisees have embraced the technology, others are more cautious.”

When asked about the rollout’s speed, Falconer says, “We could have spent much more time in testing, but the benefits proved compelling enough to justify such an aggressive rollout.”

Chili’s LED Parameters 

Chili’s main goal was to make sure the new LED lamps would provide the quality of light needed to create the proper ambiance in the dining areas. The design team tested lamps from various manufacturers with regard to light temperature (cool or warm), rendering (how natural the light is), output and dimming ability. Other considerations included color shifting, consistency and performance with existing fixtures, and the systems needed to manage the dimming action.

But Chili’s biggest requirement for new LEDs was ease of installation. 

“If it required modifying or replacing a fixture, we didn’t want it,” Falconer says. “The new lamps had to be easy to use and easy to install.” Accordingly, the vast majority of Brinker’s LED purchases were screw-in lamps.

Another consideration in choosing the right LEDs included the shape of the fixture. “Some fixtures trap too much heat, which isn’t good for LEDs. We’re phasing those fixtures out in the Chili’s front-of-house reimaging program,” Falconer says. 

A third consideration focused on dimming systems. “LED lamps are complex little things, like tiny individual computers,” Falconer says. “Dimming systems are equally complex. To make them work together is like getting two computer networks to cooperate. Adding to the challenge is the fact that LED lights reduce the electric load so dramatically that some dimming systems can’t recognize the new load—it’s too small for them to detect.”

“One option would be to put in a whole new dimming system,” Falconer says. “If you have the money, that’s the best way. But for our restaurants, we had so much invested already in those systems that we wanted to keep them.” 

“We had to make sure the lamps we specified worked with our existing dimmers. We also had to make sure circuits were properly loaded—in other words, if a particular circuit only had a few lamps, we’d have to add more so the unit had enough of an electric load and could respond to dimming controls.”

Installation: Professional Vs. In-House 

Part of Chili’s testing program touched on the most efficient installation method. Because the new lamps were, for the most part, screw-in types, it was technically feasible to ask restaurant crews to do the switch. On the other hand, getting LEDs to play well with existing dimming systems takes a little finessing and know-how.

“We decided professional installers were the way to go,” Falconer says. “Even though one Chili’s resembles the next, each store has a unique lighting arrangement. It was impossible to create a single LED lighting package that would work across all stores.” 

“Our restaurant teams’ mission is to serve great food—not to change light bulbs. Asking them to tally the number and type of existing lights, or to change 200 bulbs, would be too much of a distraction,” Falconer adds. “Professional installers let us relieve that burden from team members. The pros could roll their van up to a restaurant, install the new lights—they’d have all the parts on hand—and provide each restaurant with exactly what was needed.”

Replacing 200 bulbs in 800-plus stores adds up to a lot of old bulbs of which to dispose. Brinker did its best to keep them out of landfill. “We didn’t want to leave them behind in restaurants, so we asked our managers to either give the old ones away to local charities or give them to employees to use in their own homes,” Falconer says. 

Costs And Benefits

Chili’s LED program required a per-store investment of about $5,000 for new lamps, plus the cost of installation at each location. 

“If you average the cost at about $25 per LED lamp, multiplied by 200 lamps per front-of-house, you’re easily up to $5,000 for new lamps, plus installation,” Falconer says, noting that LED lamps range from $10-$15 for basic units, up to $55 for higher lumen directional lights. “Compared to a remodeling or reimaging program, that’s not a tremendous amount,” Falconer says.

The ongoing savings on electricity and maintenance, however, more than pay for the upfront investment. 

Lighting typically comprises about 20% of a restaurant’s overall electrical load, according to industry studies. Lighting costs can range anywhere from $5,000-$8,000 a year at casual-dining restaurants. Lighting also is one aspect over which operators have the most cost control in terms of hours used, number of fixtures and lamps, dimming and so on.

“The bulk of Chili’s light fixtures used 65W bulbs,” Falconer says. “We replaced those with 6W parabolic reflector LED lamps, cutting wattage use by more than 90%. For us, the simple payback on LEDs—capital cost and installation—has been less than two years, and in some cases, less than 18 months. As technology improves and prices decrease, the payback time will shorten.” 

Chili’s operators found the difference in electricity use was dramatic. “Electricians measured current flow before and after the LED installation,” Falconer says. “I remember after one particular lighting changeover, there was an electrician who had a perplexed look on his face. I asked him what was wrong. He told me he thought his ammeter was broken because it was only reading 3 amps—he was used to seeing 20-25-amps worth of draw. I assured him that it was probably okay.”

A far more significant payback comes when you consider maintenance savings associated with replacing LEDs vs. burned-out incandescent bulbs. “Chili’s bulbs had to be changed all the time,” Falconer says. 

Some simple math proves this point: One LED lamp rated for 30,000 hours can replace 30 bulbs rated at 1,000 hours each. If each dead bulb costs, say, $1 in time and labor to change (including the time needed order new bulbs, assign associates to make the change, pull out ladders, dispose of the old bulbs, etc.), the total labor savings of using an LED instead of an incandescent bulb will be about $30. In other words, an LED gets changed once, compared with 30 changes for the incandescent bulbs.


When it comes to tallying savings from LED changeovers, the total will vary according to the number and types of existing lighting being replaced, any rebates used and local electricity rates. You can get a solid ballpark estimate, however, by using a lighting-cost calculator available online at the Pacific Gas & Electric Food Service Technology Center website: 

“Lighting savings are probably the easiest to calculate, have a superfast payback, and if you have a smart meter, you’ll see the energy savings the very next day,” says Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the San Ramon, Calif.-based research facility. “Your lighting costs may be only about 15%-20% of your restaurant’s electric load, but it’s the part that’s the easiest to change.”

Also be sure to contact your power company to inquire about rebates, which will vary by state and locale as to availability.

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