Case Study: Newk’s Eatery, Jackson, Miss.

The creators of Newk's Eatery are no strangers to successful fast-casual concepts. Back in 1989, Don and Chris Newcomb and Debra Bryson founded McAlister's Deli, which now has 324 locations.

NewksNewk’s Eatery, which offers dine-in, carryout, grab-and-go and catering options, anticipates aggressive growth for 2014.Celebrating its tenth anniversary, Newk's continues to enjoy a growth spurt of its own. The concept now operates 66 locations in 13 states and plans to open about 15 new restaurants this year. The chain will also enter three new markets in 2014, including Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland. All but nine sites are franchised. "We're going to continue doing what has kept us successful for the last 10 years, which is focus on culinary-driven food quality and guest service," says Kevin Anderson, vice president of operations for Newk's.

Freshly made hot sandwiches serve as the cornerstone of the Newk's menu. Best sellers include the chicken salad, club, Newk's Q and pimento cheese sandwiches. "Roughly 40 percent of our menu mix is sandwiches," Anderson says. "We compete in the sandwich segment, but we offer so much more."

In terms of salads, the Newk's Favorite is a best seller and includes mixed greens, grilled chicken, Gorgonzola cheese, dried cranberries, grapes, artichoke hearts, pecans and croutons tossed with the signature Newk's sherry vinaigrette. Guests can choose from four homemade soups daily, with lobster crab bisque, tomato basil and loaded potato being the most popular. Gourmet California-style pizzas are also strong sellers. Quarterly limited-time offers and seasonal items include a sandwich and salad selection, with pizza occasionally thrown into the mix.

"We have changed very little with our core menu, but have recently begun a quarterly LTO program offering new items," Anderson says. "When we have a very successful LTO, we sometimes will add it to our core menu, such as a sausage and pepperoni pizza and shrimp remoulade salad. Also, our Newk's Q pizza is a seasonal LTO, but if ordered, we will make it any time."

Guests can dine in, carry out or order food to go. Newk's also has a grab-and-go section and a full-service catering operation, which offers a number of items from its restaurants, in addition to platters, boxed lunches, boxed salads and finger sandwiches.

"Our business model focuses on the guest experience," Anderson says. "We greet the guests as they walk into our restaurants. They then place their order, receive a table number and typically visit our beverage station and Round Table. By the time they're seated, the food is usually being served."

Newk's design and equipment package allows staff to produce made-to-order items in seven minutes or less in an open kitchen environment. The endcap and free-standing locations, which average about 4,500 square feet, seat about 150 inside and between 20 and 40 on an outdoor patio.

The centerpiece of Newk's front of the house, the Round Table section is an area where customers can add an array of toppings, such as hot sauces and peppers, which provide additional value to their meals. Customers can peer into the back of house, which encompasses about 40 percent of the square footage, where they can see staff preparing their orders. "This improves productivity with our staff as well as communication between the staff and customers," Anderson says. "It's a win-win."

The kitchen consists of four lines: pizza, sandwiches, salads and expediting. This heavily prep-driven concept utilizes up to five hourly prep partners working seven to nine hours a day per shift to produce the daily prep. Chicken comes in fresh and is brined, grilled, cooled, sliced and individually weighed for portion control and consistency. Dressings are made in-house with immersion blenders.

About four years ago, the chain added rapid-cook ovens to its equipment package. The majority of its sites use two ovens on the sandwich line and two on the pizza line. "These ovens have improved our food quality with more consistent cook-through, whether we're producing 1 item or 20," Anderson says. "The units have also reduced the cook times by roughly 30 percent and have less moving parts, which allows us to keep the interior and exterior clean."

Due to the focus on fresh, Newk's requires a large amount of refrigerated storage. This includes a walk-in cooler with 10-foot ceilings, salad cooler, 8-foot sandwich/pizza prep tables with cutting boards on top and a custom salad line that is the centerpiece of the kitchen. Locations also include walk-in freezer space. "I believe performance, durability and, depending on the piece of equipment, size are major factors," Anderson says. "We also utilize a preventative maintenance program on all equipment to keep it working efficiently."

Speed and consistency are the goals, but Newk's equipment also has to offer performance and durability. "Most of our stainless is custom fabricated for us, and we will occasionally change specs to improve functionality," Anderson says. "We also look at ways to make our kitchens even more efficient by possibly moving our current equipment package to improve hourly partner productivity."

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