Unnecessary product crossovers were eliminated by placing the proteins prep table next to the steamers and the conveyor toaster next to the toppings and sauces prep table. Now all Firehouse sandwich production flows in one direction.
Flow It, Move It, Enclose It
Armed with the operational research, Firehouse Subs brought in Big Red Rooster, Columbus, Ohio, to work on the kitchen layout, furnishings, fixtures and brand graphics.
The change with the single biggest impact was the steamers. A linchpin of the sandwich chain’s makeline, their existing placement and speed offered some room for improvement.
"At Firehouse stores, the sandwich production area is open to guest view. We use six to eight clamshell-type steamers, lined up on an 8-ft.-long table along the back wall, to quick-heat meats and cheeses for sandwich fillings," Namey explains. The heating process takes two minutes and 45 seconds. The conveyor toaster also sits on the back counter. Cold ingredients occupy prep tables along the customer side of the workspace.
That layout proved inefficient, Namey says. "When an order comes in, the proteins cross the aisle twice—over to a steamer to be heated, and then back in the bun. Bread makes at least four crossings—from storage bin to toaster, then to the front line to be dressed according to customer preference, then back to the steamer for the proteins, and finally to be plated or wrapped for carryout.
"Our approach to the prototype was, let’s fix the production area first, and redesign everything so product flows in one direction."
In 2017, Firehouse Subs operations team began working with steamer manufacturer Antunes to improve speed and take up a smaller footprint. The resulting custom-built units cook faster and use sliding drawers instead of clamshell lids, and as a result, can be stacked two high.
"They give us the same capacity in half the space," Namey says. Because the new units are powered by a builtin boiler rather than the slower steam injection system of the previous model, they heat in one minute, 45 seconds—a whole minute faster. The units have been successfully tested in several retrofitted Firehouse Subs locations.
The steamer upgrade triggered a host of production area layout adjustments, including:
Moving the meats and cheeses prep table next to the steamers and positioning the conveyor toaster next to the toppings and sauces prep table. "Now all the product is flowing from back to front," Namey says. "Bread is toasted and dressed on one side and meats/cheeses are heated on the other side. The only aisle-crossing comes at the end when the proteins are handed across to be added to the sandwich just before it’s wrapped or plated."
Shrinking the kitchen footprint by as much as 25% as a result of the stackable steamers.
Adding a pass-thru shelving unit—dubbed the Rapid Rescue station—for to-go orders and third-party delivery pickups. The shelving unit is located below the pass-thru window for in-store orders.
Adding walls to enclose the production area. “Customers can still look through the pass-thru window at employees working, but now all the interaction takes place at the order point,” Namey says.
The boiler-based steamers made by Antunes cook faster and use sliding drawers instead of clamshell lids, and as a result, can be stacked two high.
In fact, enclosing the production area, and placing the cash register and order counter in the front of the store, marks one of several changes in the front-of-house meant to improve the customer experience. By contrast, in existing stores, guests must walk all the way to the back to order and pay. (They can customize their sandwich as its being built if they choose to.)
The changes have resulted in a much more user-friendly experience for first-time customers, who can quickly determine where and how to order. And although the wall blocks guest interactions with employees, it also limits slow-downs as a result of too much customer interaction.
Firehouse serves its growing to-go and third-party delivery business via a shelving unit, nicknamed the Rapid Rescue station, located below the in-store orders window.
Planners also tweaked the decor and seating style and count. Brand identity (specifically Firehouse’s core mission of giving back to first responders) has been emphasized through signage and by paring back on the amount of fire station paraphernalia so as not to obscure the message.
The prototype has fewer seats (28, down from 50 in existing locations) in response to the growing percentage of to-go and third-party delivery orders as well as the goal of a smaller, more cost-effective overall footprint.
A range of table sizes—two-tops, four-tops and an eight-seat community table—appeals to more types of guests. "Current stores have only two-tops. The study showed us this was not very ‘family friendly,’ even though it was flexible,” Namey says.
One thing that did not change, however, is the signature Firehouse Subs mural. This mural will continue to be hand-painted at Firehouse headquarters by the compan’s in-house artist, and customized for each new store.
The mural remains a constant decor element at all Firehouse locations, including the prototype. “This was one of our ‘sacred cows,’” Namey says.
Now and Later
Firehouse Subs plans to monitor and measure all aspects of the Durbin Park Shopping Center store, and based on the results, make plans for future prototype locations.
Namey has been present at more than a few Firehouse Subs openings during his 15-year career at the company. While observing the chain’s ROTF prototype debut in July, he was especially eager to see how fast customers would figure out the revamped ordering process.
"The regulars walked straight to the back looking for the registers,” says Namey, recalling that busy morning. “They’d stop, then turn around and come back to the front. New customers figured out the ordering process immediately."
So, for at least one objective of the redesign, it’s already mission-accomplished.
MENU/SEGMENT: Fast-casual sandwich chain
HEADQUARTERS: Jacksonville, Fla.
NUMBER OF UNITS: 1,170-plus restaurants in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Canada SIZE: 1,600 sq. ft.
SEATING: 28 seats
CONSULTANT/DESIGN FIRM: Big Red Rooster, Columbus, Ohio
ARCHITECT: Curran Architecture, Indianapolis
True reach-in coolers, reach-in freezer, sandwich prep table, refrig. merchandiser
Nemco food warmer
Deli Pro slicer table
Eagle work tables
B&J Wire shelving
Advance Tabco shelving
Scotsman/Ali Group ice and water dispenser
John Boos 3-comp. sink
Hoshizaki ice machine
Cadco cookie oven
San Jamar cup dispenser