When we opened the first Doc B's in September 2013 in Chicago we started as a fast-casual concept with digital menu boards, GPS table trackers and a few servers to run the food to customers. By March 2014, we started to make the transition to full service. Not long after, we converted our second Chicago location to full service, and then went on to open six additional sites throughout Florida and Texas. Our newest location will open this summer in Aventura, Fla.

FES1903OperatorsOpinionPHOTOCraig Bernstein, Founder and CEO, Doc B’s Restaurant + BarIt’s not often you hear about a fast-casual restaurant operator making the switch to full service. That’s especially true for fast casuals, which continue to dominate the lunch rush. For us, the decision was dictated by our guests. Our original location in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood is home to many affluent, food-focused residents looking to dine out for dinner and on weekends. When we first opened, we offered full service at our bar, so many of our neighborhood guests assumed because of that, plus the nicer-than-typical fast-casual design overall, it meant the main dining space was full service, too. Customers would sit down and ask for menus and service. To handle those requests, we added a few extra service employees to the floor but then realized we could do a better job at building dinner business — what became clear was the dominant demographic — with a full-service operation versus focusing primarily on lunch service that typically drives most fast-casual business.

Another atypical move, and part of our expansion, was to increase the square footage for each location, even in today’s day and age when many restaurant concepts look to shrink their spaces. Our first restaurant was 3,000 square feet. Now, most of our locations are closer to 5,000 square feet. We have bigger kitchens, bigger bars and more service staff. We no longer use digital menu boards. We added stone ovens to serve neopolitan-style pizzas at a handful of our locations and traditional steakhouse broilers so we could expand our lineup of chops and steaks instead of primarily serving hamburgers and sandwiches. We also added a French top style range with a 700 degree F finishing oven to make more room for saute pans and to finish foods faster. This has paved the way for additional pasta, chicken and seafood entrees. A new, custom-built wok station using induction technology allows us to crank out stir-fry dishes, that we call WOK OUT Bowls, with the necessary speed but without the added heat in the kitchen.

These changes have really paid off. Our overall sales, and our dinner sales in particular, have increased significantly. In addition, even though we expanded our menu from 35 items to 55 items, by improving efficiencies in the kitchen and dining area to focus on speed of service, we continue to maintain our busy lunch crowds.

Style Shift Rationale

I know what you’re thinking. Why in the heck in today’s super-competitive restaurant world would an operator want to shift to a style of service that requires more labor, not less? We acknowledged this huge risk going in, but there were a few things we had in place in order to ensure it would work.

For one, we heavily researched our customers and target markets. Now, when we look to expand to other locations, we look at the real estate and surrounding demographics that fit our new service and menu model. We also look closely at potential co-tenants — favoring not necessarily other restaurants but active brands like SoulCycle, boutique hotels and high-end retail. Based on that, we felt that South Florida and Texas offered multiple areas for us in which to build.

FES1903OperatorsOpinionPHOTO2Doc B’s began to switch to a full-service offering when guests started to request menus.

We also knew, regardless of whether the format was fast casual or full service, that we would remain steadfast on maintaining quality and consistency with both the food and service. To back that up, we treat our line cooks like budding chefs, coaching them throughout the day, offer higher-than-average hourly rates and seek to hire experienced candidates. We use a more hands-on approach with a two-manned expo station: One person oversees the cold dishes and another oversees the hot dishes. In addition, we made custom refrigeration on the line part of our prototype kitchen design in order to further limit the number of steps taken by kitchen staff.

With a similar approach in mind, in the dining space, we moved the service stations around to reduce foot traffic there as well. We have also warded off possible service challenges by investing in heavy, sturdy tables and chairs that can’t be pushed together.

This laser focus on consistency and efficiency helps us compete with highly sought-after chef-driven restaurants. Unlike some of those places, which you might visit once and then not again for some time, we wanted to be a place where our diners could come multiple times in one week.

Being a Model Employer

Our employee benefits program is a pivotal part of our business model and something we constantly work to maintain for the 600-plus employees at Doc B’s. In today’s labor-challenged market, it’s important to take care of your team. We offer health, dental and vision insurance, vacation pay, overtime pay, competitive salaries, and encourage our employees to grow within the company.

Once a month we hold random drawings where Doc B’s pays the winner a “bill of their choice,” even their rent. In addition, all employees receive unlimited comped meals when they dine at the restaurant — including when they bring guests. Not only is this an added perk, it encourages employees to taste more of our food so they can share their enthusiasm with guests. We have never had anyone take advantage of the program, and I believe it’s because we focus on hiring the right people and maintaining a culture of respect and trust.

Supporting the Doc B’s team in these ways is very important to me, but to do it, it’s something you really have to believe in. I read a lot about how technology companies take care of their employees with perks and benefits, so why can’t we do that in the restaurant business? The return on investment is worth it. Our goal is to only lose a team member if they choose to change careers.

For our switch from fast casual to full service, we chose to make bigger investments up front, from purchasing more durable, lasting equipment that can handle higher volumes to rethinking our kitchen and dining design, and taking better care of our staff. It’s all about looking toward the future. In doing so, all restaurant brands, not just ours, can assume they’ll be in business for a long time to come.