California-based Farmer Boys proves that farm to table isn’t just for fine dining.
Farm-to-table restaurants usually conjure images of a particular type of fine dining, one featuring seasonal dishes described in detail by highly trained and dedicated waitstaff.
That’s not the only type of farm-to-table restaurant, though. Take, for example, Farmer Boys. This 96-unit better-burger chain out of Riverside, Calif., was founded in 1981 by 5 brothers who grew up on a farm in the island nation of Cyprus. While the concept has been refined during its nearly 40 years, the chain has long been dedicated to farm-fresh food.
Today, that means a farm-to-table approach in much of what the chain does. Instead of relying on a broadline distributor for most of its ingredients, Farmer Boys works directly with local produce growers, dairies and bakers to stock its shelves whenever possible.
The chain puts it out there loud and clear on its website, declaring that for them “farm fresh” does not equate with a trendy buzz phrase. Farmer Boys emphasizes that produce is delivered fresh and whole to its restaurants and chopped fresh in each restaurant every day.
Farm-fresh food, in this case, is also food that someone working the land would appreciate. While known best for its burgers, the chain’s much broader menu includes sandwiches, large salads and a serious all-day breakfast offering with everything from hotcakes to breakfast sandwiches and made-to-order omelets.
“All-day breakfast is unusual [for a better burger concept],” says John Lucas, the chain’s vice president of brand consistency. “We look at it as meeting the needs of our guests, who like to eat breakfast all day long. That’s part of it. The other piece is that it tells our brand story nicely. We serve these farm-fresh omelets, hotcakes and thick-cut, double-smoked bacon. The portions are large, and the food is always hot and fresh.”
To serve this farm-fresh food, Farmer Boys relies on a T-shaped kitchen, with one line running down the middle and workers on each side. One side serves drive-thru customers and the other dine-in guests.
The line starts with a conveyor charbroiler that staff use to cook chicken breasts and hamburger patties. Each protein has its own conveyor belt to prevent cross contamination.
This unit offers two main advantages compared to a standard chargrill, Lucas says. One is food safety and consistency: The conveyor model practically guarantees that it will cook ingredients to food-safe temperatures. Ease of use represents the other advantage. “The reality of the foodservice industry is, ‘What is that ramp-up time? What is the speed to proficiency for your back-of-the-house team members?’ This [conveyor unit] speeds that up. It is much more challenging to learn how to use a traditional charbroiler,” says Lucas.
After the conveyor chargrill comes a five- to six-foot flattop. Here staffers finish burgers with a nice sear and handle many of the chain’s breakfast orders, including bacon, omelets and pancakes. In many locations, refrigerated drawers beneath the flattop safely store these items until staff need to cook them. The chain also uses a small station to hold pancake batter, shelled eggs for orders like sunny side up and over easy, and liquid eggs for omelets. This station can be either built into the line or mobile, depending on footprint and operational needs.
Following the flattop is a two-burner range for items like scrambled eggs, and a dump station for fried items. The fryers themselves sit off the line, against one of the side walls. The chain typically has four units: two dedicated to french fries, one to fried fish, and one to onion rings, onion straws and fried zucchini.
In addition to this production line, Farmer Boys boasts a large prep area in the back of the house. Prep is serious work for the chain. Living up to its farm-to-table branding, restaurants receive two to three shipments per week from the company’s broadline distributor and five to six weekly shipments each from its bread purveyors and produce purveyors.
Rarely will a location keep anything longer than 24 hours, says Lucas. With such frequent deliveries, it’s no surprise that Farmer Boys preps most of its items each morning for use that day.
This includes slicing and breading zucchini for fried zucchini sticks and onions for its onion rings, as well as breaking down produce from whole for sandwich toppings and salads. Notably, most of this work happens by hand. The few tools the chain does use are hand powered, not electric. Working by hand results in higher-quality food, since electric tools can be harder on produce, Lucas says. It also creates food with a more authentic appearance that complements the brand.
“We have a spec, and we certainly strive to hit our spec, but you get our onion rings and you know they are fresh. You know these were not produced by a machine,” Lucas says.
In addition to the hand-driven tools, the prep area has just one large worktable with a built-in vegetable sink. This table, notes Lucas, sits near the door for the chain’s combination refrigerator/freezer walk-in unit. Most of the walk-in space is dedicated to refrigeration for holding produce and fresh proteins. The walk-in freezer area is much smaller and dedicated primarily to french fries and ice cream for milkshakes.
Dine-in guests experience a space that is contemporary, with the goal of conveying that the brand is “all about the farmer,” says Lucas.
The chain’s signature color is green, which appears on the walls and the upholstered booths. Wood and wood-like materials also play major roles in the design. The flooring, for instance, is a wood-style tile, while the chain’s signature wall has a barnwood appearance and displays the Farmer Boys logo and key marketing messages.
Other visual cues throughout the restaurant include a tractor icon, photos of work being done on a farm and framed pieces declaring the food is “Farm Fresh” over plaid backgrounds.
Of course, like every restaurant in the country, the shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 have affected Farmer Boys. The chain shut its dining rooms in March, reopened them several weeks later and then shut them down again in early July when the virus regained steam in the chain’s home state of California.
With dine-in off the table in many municipalities and for many customers, Farmer Boys has turned its focus to its drive-thru business. For any chain with seven-minute ticket times, this side of the operation presents challenges, especially with most business shifting to that line.
Fortunately, the chain was taking steps to improve drive-thru speed of service pre-shutdown, says Lucas. The pandemic simply accelerated Farmer Boys’ timeline. Adjustments included having cars at the pickup window pull ahead to a parking stall if the order behind them is ready. The chain also has team members outside with tablet computers, taking orders for guests deeper in the queue line. This allows the kitchen to have those orders ready (or closer to ready) by the time the guest gets to the pickup window.
Farmer Boys has also worked to improve efficiencies inside the restaurant. The chain has rolled out a kitchen display that shows each location its ticket times and then ranks it among other Farmer Boys locations. To encourage speed of service, the chain runs contests among its restaurants, offering, for instance, gift cards to team members at the best-performing locations.
“I think [the competition] appeals to the youthfulness of our cashiers,” Lucas says. “They are gamers. They have grown up in a very connected world. [The display system] uses a lot of these points that they are very familiar with, like emojis, to keep them interested and excited about the results. There’s a level of psychology that I’m probably not tuned into, but I know it makes a difference. They tell me they don’t want their emoji to fall below their competitors’ emojis. As silly as that sounds, it works.”
Beyond kitchen displays and competitions, the chain’s focus on throughput has also led it to redesign some legacy kitchens to improve ticket times.
Older Farm Boys locations, says Lucas, have a U-shaped production area, with two separate lines meeting at the pass-through window. These lines are not identical, though. While both have a grill and flattop, one has a sandwich make table and the other a salad table. This design worked when Farmer Boys had a larger menu and customer expectations were different, but it presents efficiency challenges today, Lucas says.
Ripping out the whole kitchen and starting from scratch doesn’t make financial sense for these legacy restaurants. Instead, the chain is testing an island refrigeration unit for finishing sandwiches and making salads, allowing staffers on both lines to do both jobs.
“It seems to be making quite a bit of difference. I run data on our drive-thru speed of service every day. The store that started the test remains, pretty much every day, first or second in drive-thru speed of service. That tells me there are efficiency gains to be had. The test is going to move forward, but I think we have enough data now that we can start to formulate plans with our kitchen designer to do a retrofit of the rest of the U-shaped kitchens,” says Lucas.
With improvements to its operations in place, Farmer Boys is now moving into a growth phase.
The company aims to have about 75% of its locations franchised, so it is looking for new franchise partners. Farmer Boys looks to partner with groups that understand how to provide a high level of service and hospitality, and that also have experience in the restaurant industry. The company also wants to partner with an organization that will grow along with the chain, Lucas says.
Whether it’s opening franchised or company stores, one route for expansion is filling the gaps in its existing footprint, Lucas adds. While most of the chain’s 96 restaurants are in California, real estate costs have kept it out of some of that state’s larger markets. Farmer Boys’ efforts to improve drive-thru efficiency and throughput are meant to address that problem.
“The rents are high, and we just can’t compete against some of the bigger players that have much higher average unit volumes [AUVs]. Part of the work we are doing is to get our stores to an AUV level where we can compete against the big guys. That’s our mission,” Lucas says.
The chain isn’t just sticking to its existing footprint, though. It plans to move into areas that expand its footprint, starting with the Phoenix market. The chain currently has franchised restaurants in development in the area and is looking for opportunities to open corporate stores there as well.
Success in this initiative, says Lucas, should solidify the chain’s standing. Instead of being a concept limited to two states, Farmer Boys envisions itself becoming a regional player in the better burger segment.
Recent visits Lucas and his team made to scout the competition convinced them that this is an achievable goal, he says. “We all got to this place of, ‘We are better than them, but we have work to do.’ We can win against them but we need to be faster and more consistent. That’s a great takeaway. It validates what this brand is all about as we move into other markets, because it is unique.”
At a Glance
President and chief operating officer: David Wetzel
Vice president of brand consistency: John Lucas
Vice president and chief marketing officer: Larry Rusinko
Vice president and chief people officer: Arlene Petokas
Vice president of finance and accounting: Joseph Ortiz
Vice president of supply chain and food safety: Kristy Foster
Interior design/architectural design: Armet Davis Newlove and Associates, Santa Monica, Calif.
Kitchen design consultant: TriMark USA, Mansfield, Mass.
Equipment dealer: Trimark; Kamran and Company Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif.
Facts of Note:
Chain headquarters: Riverside, Calif.
Year founded: 1981
Signature menu items: Farmer’s Burger (double bacon cheeseburger with avocado), Farmer’s Chopped Cobb Salad, Big Cheese cheeseburger
Number of units: 96
Location type: Primarily free-standing
Total system sales, 2019: $180 million
Average sales: $1.9 million
Unit growth projections: 3 to 5 per year
Check average: $14.30
Equipment package cost: $245,000