How Firebirds Fine-Tuned Its Design

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill’s latest prototype began with a comprehensive review, questioning the value of every aspect of the design.

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A trademark of all Firebirds Wood Fired Grill locations, the bar design remained important in the brand’s fourth-generation prototype. Photos courtesy of Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.

The original layout for Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, a Charlotte, N.C.-based steak and seafood concept, had served it well in more than 50 locations, evolving across three prototypes. And then, it didn’t.

“Guests know Firebirds as a spacious restaurant with the display wood-fired grill, its signature Firebar, a range of seating styles and a patio with a fireplace,” says Steve Starr, principal for Starr Design, also in Charlotte, who has helped design Firebirds restaurants since its founding in 2000.

For its first two decades, Firebirds restaurants featured a 7,000-square-foot footprint. But in 2017, rising construction costs became a major issue. “We saw double-digit price increases [for steel and equipment] for three years in a row,” Starr recalls.

The Firebirds team began value-engineering its third-generation prototype, exploring alternatives to everything from equipment to building materials. It still wasn’t enough. In 2021, Firebirds then-new CEO Steve Kislow asked for a more cost-effective alternative.

Starr, together with Firebirds’ Director of Design and Construction Daren Knight, spearheaded development of the company’s fourth and most innovative prototype.

“The real story of Firebirds’ new prototype was the process more than the specific changes,” Starr says. “Firebirds’ leadership gave the team free rein to challenge everything based on value rather than cost. Through this process, [which included cutting 1,000 square feet and reducing building costs by about 15%], we made a few big changes and countless small changes that delivered significant results.”

The fourth-generation prototype, along with backing from Garnett Station Partners, which acquired Firebirds in March 2023, has revitalized the chain’s expansion. The first location opened last fall in Murfreesboro, Tenn., followed by two in Texas (the Grapevine location pictured throughout this story) and one in Arizona.

“The 61st Firebirds will open in late July,” Kislow says. At press time, four units were under construction, with seven more openings expected in 2025.

Sales at Firebirds’ new compact locations have exceeded expectations. “With the added off-premise business, our smaller footprint can do as much volume as the larger legacy footprint,” Kislow says. “The more efficient [design] adds energy to the dining rooms, where [guests] can better hear the music, and lighting and temperature are easier to regulate, allowing the team to better manage the dining experience.”

Employees approve of the new design. “When we prepare to open each new restaurant, [we’re seeing] a friendly competition among [managers as to] who will take the helm in one of these beautiful new buildings,” Kislow adds.

 

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The more compact dining room layout saves steps for servers.

 

Anatomy of a Makeover

To make such a radical departure from Firebirds’ legacy stores, Knight and Starr agreed the only solution would be to, in some ways, start from scratch.

“We looked at everything, including the layout, key features, equipment, lighting, FF&E, and even the framing and footprint of the building,” Starr says. “We evaluated which big-ticket items [we could drop or change] while maintaining Firebirds’ three signature elements: the expo line, its wood-fired grill and the bar’s colorful ‘waterfall’ bottle display.”

Firebirds’ fourth-generation prototype features bone-deep changes to its building, interior layout, bar, to-go area and patio.

BUILDING. One of the early updates involved the building envelope. “We changed from a steel-frame construction model to an all-wood frame,” says Starr, noting soaring steel prices in 2021 and 2022 (due to pandemic-related shortages and the war in Ukraine) made this an easy decision. The shift to wood saved about $100,000.

Next, the team looked at simplifying and reducing the footprint.

“What [connected] the first three prototype interiors was an intentional sequence of presentation that [required a lot of space],” Starr says. “As you walked in, you’d see the Firebar first. Your second view when you turn the corner was, on the far side of the dining room, the wood-fire grill in the expo kitchen.”

The fourth prototype took a new approach. “We went from a large, complicated building with jigs and jogs, to a 1,000-square-foot smaller box with add-ons for the vestibule and walk-ins. It became significantly easier and faster to build,” Starr says.

Most trims came from the dining area, public space and table groupings. “In the previous prototypes, traffic moved in all different directions, requiring more circulation space,” Starr recalls.

 

Grapevine grill 1

The display wood-fired grill on one end of the expo line serves as a focal point of the dining room.

 

LAYOUT. Designers realized that placing the bar-lounge adjacent to the kitchen to integrate it as part of the dining room would improve efficiencies and flow, while reducing steps for servers.

One example: “Now a server’s path of travel is directly from the dish drop-off to the beverage station (server alley) past the bar’s service well back to the dining room,” Starr says. “The path has become really tight, efficient and circular.”

BAR. The biggest update to Firebirds’ bar proved to be a switch to a modular bar die wall system, in which the bar’s various equipment elements are welded to a prefabricated wall.

“[By] losing the legs under the equipment, especially under the sinks and bartender wells, our teams have an easier time cleaning all the way to the wall, rather than having to navigate around multiple legs,” says Vice President of Beverage and Special Projects Lisa Kozloff. “The new system [lets us] hide plumbing and soda lines and creates a cleaner aesthetic.”

The bar design boosts efficiency too. “Now we have bartender wells in the best locations to serve guests efficiently and provide a show,” Kozloff adds. “The bartender cockpit keeps everything our teams need to execute the beverage program, with high-use items within arm’s reach or one pivot.”

 

Grapevine FIREBAR

Out of sight from customers, the modular bar die wall construction speeds installation and boosts operational efficiencies.

 

KITCHEN. Reorganizing the circulation and narrowing aisles resulted in a slightly smaller kitchen, but “in a matter of inches,” Starr says. The equipment lineup remained the same.

The team value-engineered cold storage by choosing a standard walk-in that did not need its exterior to match the building. “Now we’re specifying a standard walk-in with its standard aluminum exterior finish and adding a simple shadowbox fence around it to hide it from view,” Starr says.

TO-GO AREA. In existing Firebirds stores, “the kitchen would assemble the carryout order along the expo line, then a server would run the order across the restaurant to the bar staff, who would handle payment and pickup,” Starr says.

By contrast, the new prototype features a short, straight-line path from the to-go order assembly point at the end of the expo line to a dedicated pickup area on the far side of the beverage area. A dedicated staff position handles to-go transactions during peak hours.

Starr credits his 4-foot-11-inch daughter, who worked as a Firebirds server during her college years, for an improvement to the assembly area. The worktable now stands only 30 inches high, down from 36 or 42 inches high at older stores.

“Imagine someone that short trying to place food containers into a tall shopping bag without tilting or spilling,” Starr says. “My daughter told me she would spend most of her time on tiptoes while working the to-go packaging position.”

 

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At the to-go order assembly point, a 30-inch-high worktable makes life easier for Firebirds’ shorter associates.

 

PATIO. During Firebirds’ evolution, the patio had grown. By the third prototype it had become “an enclosed extension of the dining room but with big windows that Firebirds was able to operate 12 months a year without sacrificing any guest comfort,” Starr says.

The team weighed the cost of operating a heated/cooled fully enclosed patio year-round vs. a simple, covered outdoor seating area, along with post-pandemic guest preferences for true outdoor dining. They went with the latter, and the change saved about $150,000 off the total cost to build.

One enhancement to Firebirds’ exterior was the addition of the fire torches—whirling vortices of flame in a tall glass pillar—at two corners of the building. “The torches generate so much attention that some existing Firebirds have been looking into installing their own,” Starr says.

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Fiery ”tornadoes” in glass pillars add flair to the exterior.

Future Plans

The smaller fourth-generation prototype will drive Firebirds’ expansion. “Firebirds’ average unit volumes have grown by more than 35% in the past few years,” Kislow says. “The box we’re building today allows us to leverage new revenue categories [such as a new catering program and our two virtual brands] and continue to provide guests with extraordinary experiences regardless of how [they] engage with the brand, be it dine-in or carryout. Our goal is for all of those ways to be exceptional.”

 

FACTS

FIREBIRDS WOOD FIRED GRILL
HEADQUARTERS: Charlotte, N.C.
FOUNDED: 2000
NO. OF UNITS: 60
PROTOTYPE SIZE: about 6,000 square feet
2024 PLANS: 6 openings
FIREBIRDS: Charles Blankenship, COO; Steve Kislow, CEO; Lisa Kozloff, v.p. of beverage and special projects; Daren Knight, director of design and construction; Steven Sturm, sr. v.p. of food and beverage
ARCHITECT, KITCHEN CONSULTANT, INTERIOR DESIGN: Steve Starr, president; Carolina Martinez, project manager; Abby McClure, designer; Erin Halstensgard, designer, Starr Design, Charlotte, N.C.
DEALER: Brandon Dixon, designer; Rick Shuler, senior account executive, TriMark Foodcraft, Winston-Salem, N.C.
WEBSITE: firebirdsrestaurants.com

 

FirebirdsFloorPlan

 

Key Equipment

BAR & BEVERAGE
Krowne underbar mixology station, blender station, soda gun holder, underbar ice bins, back bar cooler, glass froster, underbar hand sink
Ecolab undercounter glasswasher
ACS bottle display, work table, equipment stand
Allavino wine refrigerator
Hatco drawer warmer
Bunn coffee brewer, tea brewer
Cecilware tea dispenser
T&S Brass glass filler, drip pan
Manitowoc ice machine
Follett bin, transport cart

KITCHEN
Menumaster microwave oven
CaptiveAire exhaust hood
Alto-Shaam smoker oven
Hoshizaki worktop refrigerator, worktop freezer, pizza prep tables, refrigerated equipment base, undercounter freezer, reach-in refrigerators
Garland range, countertop griddle, convection oven
Aztec wood-burning grill
Vulcan fryer battery
Antunes conveyor toaster
Robot Coupe food processor
Hobart salad dryer, food slicer
Hatco drawer warmer, heat lamps
Globe planetary mixer
ACS mixer stand, shelving, work tables
Groen tilt skillet
T&S Brass pre-rinse faucet
APW Wyott hot food well
ACS pass-thru shelf, ash dolly, shelving and more
H.A. Sparke speed rails

DISHROOM & STORAGE
ACS dishtables, pot rack, three-compartment sink
Ecolab conveyor dishwasher
Hatco booster heater
H.A. Sparke utensil rack
Kolpak walk-in cooler/freezer
Chill-Rite remote beer system
Berner air curtain
Metro dry storage shelving


T&S Brass is pleased to sponsor FER’s Kitchen Design feature. To learn more, visit tsbrass.com.

 

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