Given the size and diversity of its menu, McAlister's Deli requires a kitchen design that promotes both efficiency and flexibility. In a typical unit, which seats 120 inside and measures 3,800 square feet, the back of the house comprises roughly a third of the total space. "Unlike a lot of fast casuals that have more limited menus, ours requires a full back-of-the-house operation," Corley says.
The average kitchen measures 12 feet wide. Prep stations are located on both sides, and the kitchen is separated from the front counter area by a wall with an expediting window where completed orders are placed for staff pickup. Behind the active order assembly area sits an additional prep station as well as storage, a walk-in cooler, a freezer, a dishwasher and sink facilities.
Major prep/assembly stations include a salad and Spud station, a sandwich station (two separate stations in high-volume stores), a soup and hot foods station, and an expediting station in the center below the pickup window. "Equipment-wise, all of the stations include make tables that keep our products cold. We have grillers and a toaster for sandwiches, and ovens for baking our potatoes and our cookies," Corley says. "Our older restaurants also have steamers. We originally heated our proteins with steam, but we're looking at new cooking platforms to help with speed of service and food quality."
Speeding up service has been a key strategic priority. Paci says that, during the past two years, efforts to that end have included a combination of menu reengineering, process reengineering and equipment upgrades. "We had certain menu items that had significantly longer cook times than others and were also slow movers," he says. "If a party ordered one of those items and you want to bring out all of the food at the same time, inevitably the rest of the order would be ready and getting cold before that one item was done. It impacted both quality and service, so we took some of those items off the menu."
McAlister's installed kitchen display screens in several units to help track order assembly times. Some stores use convection microwaves capable of heating products faster than some of the chain's older pieces of equipment. "Our order turnaround time now is about five minutes," Paci says. "We've made some big strides in terms of speed. It's one of those things that if you really focus on with menu, process and equipment, you can improve upon."
With the exception of the steamtable, McAlister's purchases off-the-shelf kitchen equipment. "We have a lot of items that we hold hot. We used to have a lot of warmer wells all over the counter, but now we've gone to a big, single customized table that holds everything," he says.