Lessons Learned

Kitchen concepts from the fast-casual, quick-service world.

By  Amelia Levin, Freelance writer

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When Chipotle opened its first store in 1993, it seemed to spawn a wave of assembly-line, customizable-food concepts across multiple segments and food types. From Asian-inspired and noodle concepts to build-your-own salads, sandwiches and now even customizable sushi, there’s a lot to be learned from these speed- and customer-service-driven stores.

Multifunction, automated and, in some cases, ventless, self-contained equip­ment has helped these concepts turn a once-complicated setup into minimal-labor, small-footprint operations. In fact, these efficient, modern-era food stores could spawn a new wave of c-stores. Read on for profiles on some innovative concepts from the restaurant world.


U-Sushi

Location: Beverly Hills, Calif., and San Francisco

No. of Units: 2

Sushi, once reserved for full-service Japanese restaurants and in pre­packaged form for grocery stores, has finally made its way to the quick-service segment, thanks to a few California-based operators. At U-Sushi in Beverly Hills, customers can build their own fresh fish creations. Starting from the left end of the line and moving to the right, they select white or brown rice as the base, followed by their choice of tofu, fish, vegetables and sauces.

Jeremy Umland, founder and CEO of U-Sushi (and owner of Ozumo, a 10-year-old Japanese sushi and robata grill restaurant in San Francisco) says the idea for U-Sushi came from a notice­able lack of made-to-order, customizable sushi in the quick-service segment.

“We noticed over the years that sushi was becoming so popular that people were coming in at all times of the day just for takeout,” says Umland (who also goes by “Shacho,” the Japanese word for “company head” used in Japan to respectfully address a boss). The only alternative was prepack­aged rolls at the local Whole Foods.

For a better value proposition, Umland decided to stick with fish, veg­etable and spice-packed maki rolls vs. nigiri (a single piece of fish on top of rice). Roughly 30% of customers look to design their own rolls, while the rest choose from U-Sushi’s classic and sig­nature selections. A refrigerated glass display case extending the full length of the serving line keeps raw product fresh while also offering a literal transparency that sushi customers seek.

“Knowing and seeing that the sushi is fresh and prepared your way really removes that hesitancy we have seen over the years,” Umland says. “There is nothing slimy, nothing to surprise them.”

At the serving line, which doubles as prep line before service, U-Sushi relies heavily on automation, both to main­tain consistency and alleviate some of the training required by the precision of sushi prep, Umland says. At the front, the “sheeter greeter” asks customers if they want white or brown rice, seaweed or soy paper. A simple press of a button on the 18-inch-wide-by-60-inch-tall rice sheeter doles out the “base” for the roll, followed by the seaweed or soy paper as the next layer. Then, with a quick open-close of the refrigerated display case, the sushi maker pulls out and cuts the fish to spec. The sushi slides down to the veg­gie person, who adds avocado, cucum­ber, carrots, daikon and other toppings along with spicy mayo or other sauces, if desired. That staff member crimps the roll and slides it into a rice cutter to make eight uniform pieces.

Originally, Umland considered find­ing a 1,400 square-foot back kitchen with a hood to do tempura and other hot items, but he switched to a simpler menu with a smaller space and higher volume. The result was a 642-square-foot space with no back room and daily deliveries in lieu of excess refrigera­tion. Staff comes in an hour and a half before service to receive the fish, prep vegetables and make the sushi rice using an industrial-size rice cooker, and then keep it warm using an insulated hopper. Cold sushi rice, Umland explains, will cause the rolls to harden slightly and lose their freshness.

A strict glove-wearing policy also helps keep the product clean and safe. “The whole idea with sushi is that everything has to be immaculate,” Umland says.


Savage Depot

Location: Savage, outside Minneapolis

No. of Units: 1

A full-service, full-menu operation requires a full kitchen line with a traditional hood setup and all the bells and whistles, right? Not necessarily.

Jim Lewis has proven as much with Savage Depot, his 70-seat restaurant out­side of Minneapolis. The casual eatery boasts an extensive daylong menu of eggs and bacon, burgers, wraps, pizzas, salads, soups and appetizers with a mere 16-foot-by-10-foot galley-style kitchen and two very busy pieces of equipment: a self-contained Autofry fryer and a high-speed, rapid-cook MultiChef Oven—both of which require no hood. In fact, the entire kitchen is ventless.

“People often laugh when they go in my kitchen because I can’t even boil water,” Lewis says. “I have no griddle, no flattop, not open flames, just a fryer and an oven. But I have a full burger menu.” By night, the restaurant expands into even more of a bistro, with 25 craft beers and more than 20 wines poured directly out of barrels from Argentina.

Lewis points to the advancements of foodservice products and his dual fryer-oven combo as the reason he’s able to produce such a menu. The 100% chuck steak burgers are actually cooked for just 2 minutes in the fryers, but because the pat­ties come par-broiled, no oil gets through the seared-in surface, he explains.

The fryer is also used for fries and sweet-potato fries, of course, and for breakfast potatoes, some appetizers such as egg rolls and stuffed mushrooms as well as a slew of fish offerings, from coconut shrimp to scallops and up to 70 pounds of fish for a Friday night fry. With the press of a single button, the fully enclosed, ventless fryer will cook the food in minutes, then drop the finished prod­uct into a draining basket automatically. A built-in fire-suppression system filters air three times before it’s released.

“You could easily put one of these sys­tems in a c-store without having that heavy oil smell,” Lewis says. Staff members can easily change the oil and filter once a week by easily pulling out a pair of carts holding the oil, and then cleaning out any breading or residue in the drawers. It’s a short and simple process, Lewis says.

In the morning, cooks simply throw thawed, preshaped dough for muffins, Danishes and other pastries in the rapid-cook oven for a couple of minutes to produce hot baked items with coffee. At lunch and dinner, 9- and 12-inch pizzas cook in the MultiChef for just two and a half minutes. Par-baked dough gets layered with an assortment of toppings, then baked off at 465 degrees Fahrenheit in the highly insulated oven.

“We can bake six pizzas every four minutes,” Lewis says.

The oven can also be used for roasting all the precut vegetables used in the salads and sandwiches, such as onions, corn and marinated bell peppers. The same sand­wiches and wraps will get a quick “toast” before serving.


Freshii

Location: Global, with headquarters in Toronto

No. of Units: More than 50

Using an assembly-line setup, plenty of refrigeration and precooked, safely cooled proteins, Freshii since 2005 has built a business off freshly made, cus­tomizable salads. At one end of the linear kitchen, an order taker starts the base of the salad, while the next staff member adds the vegetables, followed by another who adds the proteins, cheeses and fruits, if appli­cable. The last person on the line adds the dressings and tosses everything together.

The stores also use a rice cooker, soup and noodle warmers, a lettuce cooler, pumper station for dressings, and a cold sandwich unit to chill and hold the veg­etables, which are sliced using a powerful Robot Coupe.

“A lot of our prep is done in the back kitchen, but we try to allow the customers to see as much as possible,” says David Grossman, owner of two Freshii loca­tions in downtown Chicago. “Because we don’t do much cooking on the premises, we want customers to know how fresh everything still is.” Prep starts at 6 a.m. for the lunch rush several hours later.

Two large display coolers near the cash register hold beverages, as well as pre­made, grab-and-go items such as yogurt parfaits, smaller takeout salads and other quick bites.

“Our stores get deliveries daily so we don’t need any large walk-ins, just two two-door reach-in refrigerators and a one-door freezer, although most everything comes in fresh,” Grossman says. Proteins such as chicken, steak and salmon come in pregrilled and chilled.


Wingstop

Location: Nationwide, with headquarters in Richardson, Texas

No. of Units: More than 500

With hundreds of stores around the country, Wingstop relies on a powerful lineup of top-of-the-line, high-efficiency fryers to churn out the thousands of chicken-wing products served daily. With takeout typically accounting for 60% to 70% of sales, speed of service is this 10-year-old, limited-service chain’s No. 1 priority, says John McDonald, vice president of design and construction. Customers order online (an increasingly popular ordering method) or arrive at the main counter, place their order for in-store dining at one of the 35 seats, or wait for takeout while staff prepares the food in the galley-style kitchen, typically averaging 20 feet wide by 70 feet long. In-store diners return to the counter to retrieve their order when called.

Kitchen setup in these 1,400- to 1,600-square-foot stores center on the fryer station. One of the 90-pound, energy saving, high-capacity Pitco fryers is used for boneless wings and chicken patties for the chain’s new line of “glider” mini-sandwiches, while three other fryers cook the store specialty: bone-in battered wings.

After 14 minutes of cooking for bone-in product and seven minutes for boneless, another staff member sauces the wings in stainless-steel bowls, transfers the order to a basket or bag, and it’s ready to go. The wings are sourced already battered; Wing­stop has worked closely with a vendor to produce a consistent product that meets the chain’s specifications, McDonald says.

For ease of use, the fryers come with a timer for automated cooking as well as self-cleaning capacity. Integrated digital controls and a filtration system allow staff to not even have to touch the oil, McDonald says: “It’s very easy—you just push a button to drain the oil, cart it out on a caddy on wheels, and send it to the back for pickup (a few franchisees reuse the oil for biodiesel to power cars).

“It takes the brains out of dealing with it, and as far as reli­ability, that’s what we’re looking for.”

Meanwhile, french fries are blanched first in the fryers, then cooled on baking pans in a nearby upright refrigerator until final service. A reach-in freezer holds the boneless product while an additional reach-in and some undercounter refrigeration hold the bone-in wings and other product. Rolls for the new gliders are made-in house using self-proofing dough and a large convection oven.

Earlier this spring, Wingstop opened its first 2,800-square-foot, 90-seat Wing­stop Sports concept in Brownsville, Texas, with an expanded menu that now includes grilled items as well as bar ser­vice. Counter ordering is the same at this concept, which is expected to roll out to other U.S. locations, but the kitchen now includes a 40-inch-wide griddle, tortilla warmer and a proofer and oven for freshly baked sandwich rolls and other breads.

The typical 10-foot-wide kitchen also was expanded to the left and at the back to hold a larger warming unit for chicken and a 7-foot sandwich station with undercounter refrigerators for sal­ads. With a wine- and beer-focused bar, alcohol sales have reached 6%.

“We’re using this concept as a broader offering with a little more square footage and more items on the menu that will allow us to hit smaller markets,” McDon­ald says.

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