The challenge: Downsize a chain operation kitchen while still being able to keep the quality and production levels high.
Even the large restaurant chains can think small when it comes to kitchen size. For the 190-unit Corner Bakery chain, coming up with a kitchen that turns out quality product in a reduced space meant reconfiguring the kitchen literally from square one.
From its origin as a production bakery for the Maggiano's Little Italy restaurants, Corner Bakery has grown into a standalone sandwich, pastry and coffee chain. Within five years of opening its first unit, "we had evolved to a full café menu," says Corner Bakery president and "Head Breadhead" Gary Price. "Our original prototypes were
really cafeteria style, built for urban use."
As the chain expanded and moved out into more suburban locations, "we quickly evolved to a more traditional fast-casual model, where you ordered at a register and a server brought the food out to you," says Price.
With the chain's expansion came larger units. "We were up to building 4,200- to 4,500-square-foot buildings," he says. "They're just not economically efficient enough, [considering] the cost to build, the cost to open and the cost to operate." The challenge for Corner Bakery, then, was to come up with a new, smaller kitchen footprint that would let the chain maintain its current level of production.
The first step involved gathering a team of designers, architects and consultants, both in-house and outside. "Once we got it right on paper," says Price, "we built a mockup of it in a corner of one of our warehouses." The plywood mockup, jokingly referred to as the "Corner Fakery," allowed the team to reposition everything in the kitchen for maximum ergonomic efficiency. "We could define where everything went," he says. "Where does this piece of equipment go? Where do the toasted almonds go?" By the end of the design period, they had shaved nearly 1,000 square feet off the kitchen footprint.
Equipment upgrades were also part of the redesign. Previously, Corner Bakery had 56 pieces of custom, proprietary equipment in the kitchen. The new prototype has four custom pieces; the remaining equipment consists of off-the-shelf pieces. That has helped reduce costs "not only in the cost to build but also in freight costs. If you're building a West Coast unit, you can get that piece of equipment from the West Coast and avoid all that freight cost," he says. As a bonus, the equipment "rethink" helped increase customer satisfaction. "In our soup wells, we used to use the old hot water bath," says Price. "We're now using a kettle induction system; it's holding the soup much, much hotter."
Once the design and equipment were settled upon, the next step was to conduct time-and-motion video simulations to ensure that staff could function productively in the new kitchen setup. Price called it "a stress test," with some tests simulating the peak hours of the busiest Corner Bakery stores.
After working out the kinks, the new prototype was built in an existing store in Maryland, which was up for a renewal of its lease. "Instead of just doing front-of-house remodeling," says Price, "we shut it down, scraped it to the studs and built it with the new, smaller design." Using the store's existing management and kitchen crew let
Corner Bakery compare the metrics of the new kitchen against those of the previous kitchen. The results so far have been positive, Price says. "Whether it's overall satisfaction, value attributes or speed of service, the scores are significantly better. Because of the efficiency of the kitchen, we are delivering the food faster and hotter. Our managers are spending less time bailing the kitchen out, so they're staying on the floor with the guests." Most importantly, Price says, "the unit is up $4,000 to $5,000 in sales per week."