Q&A: Jeff Drazin, General Manager, Vapiano, Chicago

It may seem unusual that Germany is the birthplace for a successful international Italian restaurant concept, but that is indeed the case with Vapiano. Established in 2002, this fast-casual Italian chain now boasts 150 restaurants in 26 countries.

Vapiano-tablesWithin the range of operations that comprise the Italian segment, Vapiano sits in between fine-dining Italian and casual pizza places.But its place of origin is not the only thing that makes Vapiano unique. An atypical display-cooking setup in the front of house focuses on chefs creating made-to-order dishes at stations while interacting with customers. "It's a more upscale fresh-casual restaurant, in between Italian fine dining on the high end and informal pizza places," says Jeff Drazin, general manager of the Chicago Loop Vapiano location.

Although its restaurants each vary in size and setup, all feature an open area with food stations and a bar. The Chicago Loop site has 200 seats, in addition to a patio, with a sophisticated yet casual ambiance that combines a red color scheme with wood.

FE&S spoke with Drazin about Vapiano's unique concept, equipment lineup and operation logistics.

FE&S: This concept has a unique setup. Can you describe the customer experience at Vapiano?

JD: The concept is personalized, and everything is made fresh in front of customers. Vapiano locations are comprised of three main food stations, which offer pasta, pizza and salad/antipasti, in addition to a bar area. Customers receive a smart card when they walk in, which keeps track of their orders. They then walk up to each station to order their food, and the chef immediately makes it in front of them. The cards are placed on a screen, where the orders are inputted by each station's chef. There's much interaction between the chef and customers during this process. When customers are finished eating and ready to go, they provide the hostess station staff with the smart card, which is read to show how much is owed.

FE&S: The menu offerings seem extensive. What does each station offer?

JD: Our menu items are consistent system-wide and include 15 different pastas, including pomodoro, arrabbiata, carbonara, ravioli and our best-seller bolognese. We create nine homemade pasta shapes every day in our manifattura, or pasta machine. Guests can customize any dish by letting the chef know which pasta shape, sauce, seasoning and ingredients they'd like. Along with a variety of vegetables, we offer chicken, salmon, beef, shrimp, Italian sausage and sopressata.

The ordering process is the same at the salad/antipasti station as with pasta. Customers can order the salad as is or choose their toppings, proteins, dressing and seasonings. Our top sellers include a Greek salad with zucchini, cucumber, radishes and parmesan as well as a spicy scampi orange fennel salad with grilled shrimp, spicy citrus dressing, arugula, shaved fennel and orange wedges.

Customers ordering at the pizza station receive a pager since pies need time to cook. We offer 12-inch thin-crust pizzas that provide 8 slices each. Dough is premade and rolled out in front of customers. Our best seller is the barbecue chicken pizza.

Vapiano's menu features specials every couple of months. We have seasonal offerings as well, such as watermelon salad with polenta and gazpacho for summer. We also offer desserts, including tiramisu and chocolate mousse, a full bar and Italian specialty coffee.

FE&S: How does a menu with so much display cooking and so many made-to order dishes impact wait times?

JD: Long waits for food have not been an issue. We have four separate lines in the pasta area, with each station's chef cooking two meals simultaneously. It takes approximately 3 to 4 minutes to cook a pasta meal, and we can prepare 25 to 30 meals in an hour. Our average wait time at this station is between four and five minutes. Our pizza cooks in about 5 minutes, so the wait time is about 8 to 10 minutes total.

FE&S: At Vapiano, the majority of the action occurs in the front of house. What equipment is key to your operations?

JD: Our pasta stations utilize two induction burners with woks on top, in addition to a pasta boiler that cooks in a minute and a half. Pizza stations use an electric double pizza oven that can fit a total of 12 pizzas at one time as well as a marble top to create pizza dough. The salad station includes a grill to prepare proteins, soup wells and a toaster for bruschetta. All stations have a beverage cooler and refrigerated drawers to store toppings and ingredients.

Vapiano-pasta-makerThe pasta maker at Vapiano is a workhorse, as all pastas are house made.FE&S: How does the back of house support the menu?

JD: The back of house comprises about 15 percent of each restaurant's square footage. This mainly consists of a prep area with tables, tilt braiser, convection oven and pizza dough mixer. It takes between 30 to 60 minutes to prepare one batch of pasta, which is held fresh in special bags and tossed at the end of the day if it's not used.

FE&S: What are the most important aspects you look for when purchasing foodservice equipment?

JD: Speed of service is important as well as the size of the equipment, since we have limited space in our locations.

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