Chain Profile: Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza

Refrigerated trucks leave the commissary each day to deliver products to Garlic Jim's units. Commissaries can accommodate up to 24 units. Minimally equipped kitchens where employees assemble and bake gourmet pizzas with ingredients prepared and stored at commissaries allow Garlic Jim's to fill the gourmet pizza delivery void.

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When Dwayne Northrop and other experienced quickservice and franchising managers and investors selected a concept to launch in the dense pizza category, they chose gourmet pizza delivered quickly. “We thought at the time it was a good niche,” says Northrop, who serves as chairman and CEO of the Everett, Wash.-headquartered chain. “It turned out there was a void in the market for this concept.” Northrop is one to know. He has nearly 20 years of industry experience with both national delivery-focused chains and smaller quality-focused companies, including Domino's, Godfather's, Pietro's and Jet City.

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In late 2003, when the concept was conceived, Northrop and his team identified only a few mom-and-pop units that were attempting to deliver higher-quality pizzas, but with minimal success. “The big pizza chains were all competing with the same medium- to low-quality pizza delivered within 20 to 30 minutes at the same price point,” Northrop says. “We looked to the Mexican food category and saw that many people were willing to pay a little more to upgrade from Taco Bell to Baja Fresh and Chipotle Mexican Grill. This wasn't happening for quick-service pizza, but we thought it could.”

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First, the pizza products were developed to be of higher quality than other top chains' pies. Garlic Jim's features two types of pizza, thin and hand-tossed, made with different dough mixes, consisting of flour, oil, sugar, salt, water, yeast and a “secret” mix of ingredients that include parmesan cheese, garlic, buttermilk and cornmeal. The pizza sauces are freshly packed with vine-ripened tomatoes. No paste is used. The cheese is fresh, 100-percent whole milk mozzarella, which is never frozen. Customers can choose from 36 different toppings.

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As Garlic Jim's nears its third anniversary, the founders' original assessment about customers' willingness to pay extra for high-quality products available through pick-up or delivery is on target. The first unit was formerly an independent pizzeria in Bellevue, Wash., which Northrop and partners purchased, used as a test kitchen and later opened in March 2004 as the first Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza. The second unit, opened a few months later, became the prototype for subsequent stores. Today, the chain operates three corporate units in Washington, and 29 franchise units in Washington, Oregon and Arizona. The company has sold franchise agreements for more than 80 units and has sold sub-franchise agreements for more than 240 stores.

Commissaries in Washington, Oregon and Arizona support the units. Plans for the remainder of 2006 and into 2007 project the opening of four more commissaries to support new units in New Jersey, Dallas and northern and southern California. Northrop estimates Garlic Jim's will be “well on its way” to reaching its goal of opening more than 500 stores by 2013, which will place the company in the industry's top 10 in terms of unit count.

Executives at Garlic Jim's believe that a streamlined, simple process for everything from store construction to pizza delivery is both efficient and profitable. That is why the chain relies on commissaries to support the individual stores. “We want to support our franchisees in every way, so they can concentrate their efforts on selling and training, not the details of purchasing and production,” Northrop says.

When franchisees commit to Garlic Jim's, for example, they are given a manual on real estate and production, which includes all details, including which architects and construction managers to use. “Every project is coordinated based on a nine-week schedule from beginning to opening, including a six-week build-out time,” Northrop says. “The construction schedule is very tight. For instance, our project managers know that the floor is finished on a specified date and the cooler is delivered the next day. If we're not managing the process, franchisees would have to do it, and that would take them away from the important work of promoting their business.”

Stringent controls are also maintained on equipment, which Garlic Jim's sources, specifies and purchases directly from manufacturers, according to Randy Bame, vice president of distribution. Bame, previously a Domino's Pizza franchisee and who also ran the distribution for Jet City Pizza, a local Seattle chain, currently handles food and equipment selection and purchasing, as well as production oversight, for Garlic Jim's. Each unit's equipment package includes a POS system so staff can place orders on a touch-screen monitor. The system subsequently generates labels printed in the back of the kitchen where pizzas are assembled, baked and boxed. Also in the package are a walk-in cooler, refrigerated and non-refrigerated prep tables, a dough-rolling machine and shelving. The 10-foot by 12-foot walk-in cooler is relatively small because deliveries are made three times a week and products are rotated frequently. The dough-rolling machine is one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the package. Two five-and-a-half-foot-long refrigerated prep tables accommodate the myriad toppings.

Another key piece of equipment is a conveyor oven that can handle 200 to 360 pizzas per hour. After pizzas are baked, staff position them in boxes. Staff then place delivery items for orders in heated bags, which are part of a system that uses induction heat to keep pizzas warm during delivery. “Each store keeps on hand about 20 bags and two heating units,” Bame says.

“The bag is placed into a cradle-like heating unit. The bags heat up in 15 to 30 seconds, compared to two to four minutes with an older system. Each bag holds up to three large pizzas, which the deliverer takes out on his or her route. The pizza is at the same temperature as it would be if it came right out of the oven. After delivery, bags are brought back to the stores.”

Managers on duty position themselves in the back of the kitchen so they can monitor production and order fulfillment, as well as estimate realistic delivery times. “If the manager is up front, he or she doesn't know what's happening with drivers or what's going out the door,” Northrop says.

Managers also place orders with the commissary for a three-day rotating delivery system. At 11 p.m. on the first day, they fax orders to the commissary. By 5 p.m. on the third day, staff receive products from the commissary. The company is developing a computerized version of this system.

“The three-day delivery system overlaps with the five-day shelf life of the dough,” Bame says. Delivery staff pick up dough trays, which unit staff wash in three-compartment sinks, and take them back to the commissary where other staff rewash and re-sanitize them.

Also in the commissaries, which now average 5,500-square-feet, Garlic Jim's staff prepare and/or assemble certain products. Staff receive ingredients, sauces and toppings and place them either in a walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer or dry storage. For dough production, staff use worktables, spiral mixers and a divider/rounder that portions dough into a specified size and rounds it into balls. These balls are placed into dough trays and stored in a refrigerated walk-in until delivery staff place them the next day in temperature-controlled trucks. Garlic Jim's owns the logo'd trucks, in addition to the pallet jacks, forklifts, stacking units and hand trucks. The entire inventory system is computerized. Staff perform hand counts monthly, as well.

“In the early days, when Garlic Jim's operated out of one store, we combined all dough ingredients,” Bame says. “Our business increased so much that we had to contract with a flour company that delivers pre-mixed products, including yeast, to us in truckloads. We store the products on 124 palette racks in dry storage. Later, water is added in the spiral mixers.”

Though the ingredients differ for the thin and hand-tossed doughs, both are further processed in the same spiral mixers and divider/rounders. Nearly 28,000 pounds of dough are produced weekly at each commissary. At this time, one six- to eight-hour shift is needed to supply products for each commissary. Commissaries serve up to 18 units now, yet they can handle up to 50 units. In the future, additional shifts will come online as needed, Bame says.

Staff place pre-made sauces and some toppings in the walk-in cooler and meats in the walk-in freezer. They also store cheese in the cooler, which is received weekly in one-half truckload shipments. The whole-milk mozzarella remains in the cooler for 10 days to two weeks while it ages. Staff also place in storage chicken wings, which arrive at the commissaries premade; parbaked dough for garlic bread, which is baked at the units; ingredients for salads and pizza; ice cream; and beverages.

When Garlic Jim's started, executives didn't have an unlimited choice of all available equipment. “When companies start up, many manufacturers don't take them seriously,” Bame says. “They hear the start-up story so often, they often get calloused. For us, some manufacturers said they'd only work with their distributor networks and others said we had to prove ourselves and reach a certain level in order to protect their distributor lines. Others didn't want to talk at all until we reached a certain growth level. As we grow, we'll be loyal to the manufacturers who supported us early.” In the future, Garlic Jim's will work to develop its own customers' loyalty. Chain executives reject the couponing approach to marketing and emphasize hiring service-oriented employees. As they expand into more states and develop a national presence, they are well aware that they can't afford to compromise on the quality of the product or service. “We are different than the other chains in the pizza business, and we have to make sure our difference is meaningful and recognizable,” Northrop concludes.

Garlic Jim's Players

Chairman and CEO: Dwayne Northrop

Vice President of Distribution (includes food and equipment selection and purchasing, and production oversight): Randy Bame

Vice President of Training and Operations: Craig Roberts

Chief Sales Officer: David Gollersrud

Vice President of Development: Bob Smith

Chief Marketing Officer: Alexis Nepomuceno, Chief Financial Officer: Bart Hoemann

Equipment Dealer: Garlic Jim's buys most equipment directly from manufacturers.

Facts of Note

Ownership: Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza, Inc. (owns three stores and the commissaries); Garlic Jim's Franchise International

Opened: March 2004

Headquarters: Everett, Wash.

Units: 32 total; 3 company-owned units; 29 franchise units (Garlic Jim's sells to franchisees and sub-franchisers)

Size: 1,200-sq.-ft.; the kitchen comprises 50 percent of the space, not including the walk-in cooler

Seats: In some locations, a few in lobbies only

Average Check: $24

Total Annual Sales: $12,000/week/unit

Transactions: 500/week

Franchise Cost: Approximately $250,000

Hours: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. (Stores not open for lunch open at 4 p.m.)

Menu Specialties: Pizzas made from a selection of at least 36 toppings. Specialties include: Jim's Gourmet Garlic with gourmet pesto sauce, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese; Garlic Jim's Ultimate with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, Italian sausage, red onions, olives, mushrooms, green peppers and extra cheese; Queen Margherita with garlic, basil and olive oil base topped with roasted garlic and fresh tomatoes on a thin crust; and Jim's Veggie with green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, red onions, black olives and classic red pizza sauce. Other menu items include chicken wings, garlic bread, salad, ice cream and beverages.

Staff: 25/unit, most of them part-time, and one full-time manager and one full-time assistant manager

Equipment Investment: $65,000, including everything except signage, the POS system and phone.

Commissaries

Size: Average, 7,000-sq.-ft.

Staff: 8-10 full-time equivalents

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