A fast-casual operator’s partnering with its foodservice equipment and supplies dealer and others generates dynamic results that will contribute to the chain’s continued growth.
The Noodles and Co. team knew that redesigning the kitchen would play an integral role in the company’s success moving forward and would help drive the chain’s growth. The team also understood that this process was too important and complex for them to go it alone. And given the chain’s emphasis on efficiency, both from a labor and an energy perspective, Noodles and Co. saw the need to collaborate with several key suppliers from outside of the organization to help create more meaningful results. These companies would have to come to the table in a completely transparent manner; and in return, the chain would share its goals and objectives for shaping customer experiences.
In Avanti, a northern California foodservice equipment and design firm, and Fisher-Nickel, a California-based energy-consulting firm, Noodles and Co. found two willing partners. This led to a collaborative effort that produced dynamic results that will position Noodles and Co. for continued growth and evolution for years to come.
“We had to bring in someone who could partner with us, be innovative and grow with us. That’s how we came to work with Avanti,” Voss says. “We really have to trust those partners, and it has been a process for us to build these relationships. We find we get much better outcomes when we partner with our suppliers.”
“The thing about Noodles and Co. is that they talk the talk and walk the walk. A lot of people, when they say that, don’t really follow through. They will take the information and use it against you,” says Mark Rossi, president of Avanti. “I am willing to be that transparent with our customers so long as they are willing to reciprocate.”
In addition to partnering with Avanti, Noodles and Co. added the resources of Fisher-Nickel, a San Ramon, Calif.-based energy-consulting firm, into the mix with the goal of making operations more energy efficient. “Having Fisher-Nickel in the process was huge for us because they are so objective. You are able to generate real honest responses, and you can feel better about what you are doing. And that makes you more credible because you are more objective,” Rossi says.
Instead of focusing on pricing and terms, Noodles and Co. had an open dialogue with Avanti and other suppliers about what the chain is trying to accomplish for its customers. “When they honestly collaborate this way we can focus on achieving the experience they want to provide for their guests, which should be the goal in the first place. It is almost providing the forum for exploration and development, and when you can do that it is great,” Rossi says.
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Working from Fisher-Nickel’s test facility, Noodles and Co. and Avanti literally started from the ground up. “What we did was take all the furniture out of the room so we could start with a blank sheet of paper,” Voss says.
Working together, the team of Noodles and Co., Avanti and Fisher-Nickel personnel developed a new kitchen prototype for the chain. Noodles and Co. then had a mixed team of relatively new and veteran kitchen staff work in the newly designed space, emulating peak volume periods to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts. “Some pieces were working well and some not so well,” Voss recalls.
After each review, the team would return to the drawing board to rearrange the equipment and workflow based on the lessons learned, before testing it again. “Avanti was in the room with us drawing up the kitchen on their computers and making sure all these parts would work together. That was a part we could not do on our own,” Voss says.
Working so closely together allowed everyone to understand how the proposed changes would impact the process on a number of levels. “Having someone drawing the kitchen and repricing it as it happened was very dynamic. You could see how it flowed through the chain and understand the difference between form and function,” Rossi says.
In addition, the Fisher-Nickel crew continued to apply their expertise during each iteration of the process. “They checked the energy efficiency of certain pieces of equipment and how we were doing,” Rossi says.
This process played out over the course of a week. “We kept repeating that until we found what worked for us,” Voss says. “So we got everything we wanted out of it. For the first day, the experienced people did not like the new kitchen. But by the second day, they really liked it — once they let go of those preconceived notions.”
“They field-tested that kitchen design and found that it considerably increased their efficiency, and that happened because of collaboration. Without that, there is no way you can get there,” Rossi says.
As a result of working so closely together, once Noodles and Co. had a field-ready prototype, Rossi and the other suppliers were ready to implement it quickly. “They had to pick a place in their store development cycle where they would stop with the old way and start with the new kitchen,” Rossi says.
Eventually, Noodles and Co. opened its first location in the Fargo, N.D., market using a new crew to work in the new kitchen. “It was our first opening in the state and our third with the new kitchen, which proved itself by setting a new company record for first-day sales,” Voss says.
The net result of these efforts was a new display kitchen that operates more efficiently and in a slightly smaller footprint than the chain’s previous version. “One of the principles was to keep our team from having to travel long distances and cross paths. Every step they take out of position costs us time,” Voss says.
For a chain that strives to provide customers with their meals within five minutes of the time they order, efficiency is critical, and that starts with the right design. “You don’t want them to have to take more than a step. After a while it becomes routine for them,” Voss says.
Although not a fixture among all fast-casual operations, the display kitchen helps create a certain ambiance in the Noodles and Co. locations using it, and certain aspects of the design, like fresh produce on display, reinforce the notion that all dishes are made to order from scratch. “One of the advantages we have is that we cook food, and the display kitchen brings people into that process,” Voss says. “The open kitchen designs are more popular in restaurants because they are cooking more from scratch. But that’s not made its way entirely to our segment.”
While Noodles and Co. will use the redesigned kitchen in new locations, it does not have plans to retrofit all of its existing operations due to cost and time constraints. “We are designing for the future. Those existing kitchens work well where they are,” Voss says. “We might go back to do that if we are doing another remodel. We may incorporate some small adjustments, but we won’t rip out all the old kitchens. That can cost too much — almost as much as building a new restaurant.”
Both Voss and Rossi agree that one main reason this process worked so well was a level of trust, collaboration and transparency among all of the involved parties that is seemingly more the exception than the norm in today’s foodservice industry. “There is no question that the results are more dynamic and meaningful because everyone knows what everyone else is trying to do,” Rossi says. “When someone really wants you to be collaborative, they come to you with everything, and you will do anything for them.”
Voss adds, “Their goals may not be the same as ours, but that does not mean they can’t go through a similar process. I would bring everyone in on that process. It just leads to more success.”
Of course, for some foodservice equipment and supplies dealers, being this open and honest with their customers can be counterintuitive. “Many of the kitchen equipment suppliers that have been around for a long time are not as open. They don’t want to discuss pricing or vendor relationships,” Voss adds.
Finding the right operator partner – one that’s committed to a supplier’s success – can and should go a long way toward helping these dealers overcome their reservations. “We want Avanti and all of our partners to make a profit and be successful. I can’t be successful if I keep driving down their prices or margins to the point they are not successful. If you are getting a rebate from a manufacturer or something like that, share that with us so we can make informed decisions. We think their success is important,” Voss says.
Being flexible is one key element for members of the supply chain looking to forge more meaningful and dynamic relationships with their customers. “You can’t say that you only do it one way. It’s not about you — it is about the customer. We have to work with customers how they want to work with us,” Rossi says. “There is a difference between transparency and getting the best price.”
Of course, it takes two or more parties with similar attitudes to form a partnership. So the operator’s approach to the relationship is equally or, in some cases, even more important than the supplier’s. That’s because the restaurant operator’s attitude can set the tone for all transactions. “It’s a lot harder to be as open and collaborative when an operator goes off and researches a solution and asks us to implement it without considering five or six key factors related to their business and the transaction,” Rossi says.
Many chains want to take this kind of work direct to the factories, but it may not make sense for them to do so once the overhead they have to pay is factored in.
Of course for any company to participate in a collaborative process like this, it must enter the relationship on relatively sound footing. “You have to trust yourself first and know you are doing a good job in the market. When you look at your competition, you have to be confident that you are doing better,” Rossi says. “You can tell by the way the customer treats you. If they treat you like a pizza delivery boy, so to speak, and want to cut out everyone else, you know you will have a problem.
“Your values have to match their core values. If they match, even loosely, you will most likely be fine. If they don’t match, don’t be afraid to say no. There will be someone else out there with values that align better,” Rossi says. “You can’t do this from a place of panic or by taking business you don’t want. Trusting that is the hardest part. Then when you find the right customer, one that fits with your business, you can partner.”