Next comes the thaw cooler, where staff place items like fish and shrimp for defrosting, followed by the refrigerated prep room.

The final piece of the walk-in system is the produce refrigerator and the holding area for prepped dishes like the preportioned steampots. This section comprises the smaller section of the L, and its entry is just two to four steps away from the start of the cookline.

The cookline's first section is the crab station, where staff produce crab buckets and steampots. Its location just next to the prepped food storage refrigerator is no accident, explains Jim Fike, regional vice president of operations for Joe's. "Whenever we look to improve processes, we think of it like a pilot in an airplane. [Kitchen staff] are in a small space and everything is within their grasp."

This more efficient layout isn't the only change to the crab station, however. In the legacy Joe's units, crab dishes were rethermalized in steamers. According to Fike, though, over the past few years crab and steampots have grown to account for a much larger percentage of orders at Joe's. Given recovery times, the steamers they had in place struggled to handle the load.

So in the new prototype, the steamers are out, and in are modified pasta cookers, which look and operate almost exactly like fryers. Each cooker in the bank is filled with different bath mixtures, such as different oil-and-water ratios, different seasonings and so on. These pasta cookers, says Fike, boast excellent recovery times. Drop a bag of cold crab and vegetables in, and within 20 seconds the bath will return to its ideal cooking temperature.

In addition to their short recovery times, these new pasta cookers accommodate high demand by rethermalizing food more quickly than steamers. Customers who order a steampot at a new prototype unit can receive their food in less than 10 minutes, roughly half the time it takes using legacy equipment, says Mazany.

In the new prototype's straight-line kitchen design, next to the crab station is one of two small convection ovens, both of which sit above undercounter refrigeration. Kitchen staff use these ovens to produce menu items like crab nachos, stuffed mushrooms and barbecued crab, while the refrigerators hold frozen items like french fries and mozzarella sticks.

Next to the first convection oven is a six-burner sauté station, with undercounter refrigeration, where staff produce such items as mussels for pasta dishes. Adjacent to this is the grill station, where cooks make hamburgers and blacken fish, and the second of the two convection oven/refrigerators.

Next on the hot line is the breading and fry station, where Joe's has instituted another major change. The company has rolled out a bank of high-efficiency fryers. Like the pasta cookers used to rethermalize crab dishes, these fryers boast extremely short recovery times.

This offers several benefits, Mazany explains, including reduced energy usage and more consistent product offerings. In addition, the short recovery times mean each fryer can cook more food over a given period. As a result, the typical new prototype unit has been able to go from six to five fryers.

With the fryer bank marking the end of the cookline, kitchen staff turning 90 degrees face a reach-in refrigerator; another 90 degree turn brings into view the start of a line of worktables, warmers and undercounter refrigeration. These tables represent the pantry station and finishing area, where kitchen staff prep and plate salads and desserts, and add garnishes, sauces and the like to freshly cooked food. Kitchen staff then pass all dishes through a long window to the expediting station.

To help make the operation more efficient, Joe's added a KDS system. While Mazany and Fike acknowledge that the use of such display systems is fairly common in casual dining restaurants, Joe's is using the system to coordinate food production and put out the best possible product.

"The KDS system is smart. We set the cook times," says Fike. "A rib eye cooked to medium takes about seven minutes to cook, and fried shrimp takes about three minutes. If you order one and your friend orders the other, that shrimp order won't even pop up on the fry station's screen until the rib eye is about halfway done. That way, everything is done and ready at the same time." At that point, the expediter will use the display system to assemble and place individual orders on trays for servers to deliver to their tables.

The efficiency improvements found in these new processes combine to offer Joe's an even bigger benefit. The back of the house in Joe's new prototype is on average about 20 percent smaller than in its legacy system. That space is used to add more tables, resulting in increased revenue potential at these locations.

Looking Ahead

Joe's has plans to open roughly 12 to 14 new units in 2013, all of which will follow the new prototype. With approximately 130 units systemwide, however, Mazany indicates there are no plans for a major remodeling or overhaul of Joe's legacy system. Instead, the chain will evaluate smaller ways to leverage the prototype's efficiencies in older units.

"We will look to incorporate things we've learned through our new restaurant openings into the entire Joe's system. We use our new restaurants as an opportunity to leverage technology and test products that we want to learn about from an efficiency perspective."

The resulting changes, he added will eventually allow the legacy and prototype units to merge and create a unified Joe's with a single look and feel and shared operational efficiencies. In the end Joe's could find itself in a unique position in the foodservice industry: a high-efficiency crab shack with a relaxed, seaside feel.



Key Players

  • Ray Blanchette: President and Chief Executive Officer, Ignite Restaurant Group
  • Jim Mazany : President of Joe’s Crab Shack
  • Jim Fike: Regional Vice President of Joe’s Crab Shack
  • Sam Rothschild: Vice President of Franchising, Ignite Restaurants

Facts of Note

  • Headquarters: Houston, Texas
  • Owner: Ignite Restaurant Group
  • Founded: 1991
  • Signature menu items: crab nachos; classic steampot (Dungeness crab, snow crab, boiled shrimp, smoked sausage, fresh corn and potatoes); Bean Town Bake (two whole split lobsters, 1 pound of clams, shrimp, sausage, corn and potatoes); salmon Orleans (crawfish, shrimp and andouille sausage topped with creamy Cajun sauce); Shark Bite (Bacardi Limon Rum, Skyy Vodka, Blue Curaçao, sweet and sour, and a dash of grenadine); Category 5 Hurricane (light rum, Bacardi 151 Rum, red passion fruit and orange juice, topped with Myer's Dark Rum)
  • Number of units: 131; 25 based on new prototype
  • Average unit size: 7,500 to 8,500 square feet
  • Average seats per unit: 200 to 350
  • Service model: Casual dining