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Bold bids for boosting business

After a shin kick of a winter, restaurant chains are trying all sorts of ways to goose sales and profits, starting with customers they’ve already won. Here’s a rundown of the experiments underway at Dunkin’ Donuts, Famous Dave’s, Chili’s and others.

Kitchen reconfigurations

Who’d have thought a double-sided prep table would be the traffic-builder of choice for a tech-embracing operation like Dunkin’ Donuts? Well, McDonald’s, for one. Both are tinkering with new sandwich assembly set-ups in hopes of serving more customers during peak traffic periods.

McDonald’s has been touting its so-called high-density prep table for months, but the protective wrapping just came off Dunkin’s version. Only two Dunkin’ stores are currently using the double-sided sandwich station, according to Nigel Travis, CEO of parent company Dunkin’ Brands, but he reported that guests are already noticing the speedier service. After visiting one of the test sites, Travis said he’s convinced more customers can be cranked through the drive-thru in particular—a good thing, he says, since newer stores in the Midwest and West tend to include a drive-up window.

Travis noted that the store he visited handled enough volume pre-test to generate $50,000 in weekly sales. “The challenge that I saw yesterday is how to take this really exciting development and break it down and take some of the aspects of it and put it into smaller stores,” Travis told investors.

Dunkin’ is asking for help in that task from two universities, a franchisee panel and in-house experts, each acting independently, Travis said. He did not divulge details of what the tables are like at present.

McDonald’s has said it intends to roll out the McPrep table by mid-year. According to CEO Don Thompson, the set-up yields a number of advantages, including the capacity for more and fresher ingredients. He also cited a streamlining of operations, since someone building a sandwich or salad doesn't have to reach across the table to grab an ingredient or garnish. 

Meanwhile, at the other pole…

While those quick-service behemoths tinker with low-tech enhancements, Famous Dave’s is going in the opposite direction. The barbecue chain is using a restaurant in Bolingbrook, Ill, purposely close to the home of acting CEO Ed Rensi, to test high-tech possibilities. As Rensi explained to investors, the chain hopes to reconfigure its business model in part by developing a high volume kitchen with scaled-down labor needs. “Kitchen efficiency becomes very important because the more efficient our kitchens are, the less square footage we need in those kitchens,” Rensi told investors. “And with our occupancy costs being what they are, a smaller kitchen really improves our store-level economics going forward.”

Dave’s has retained a supplier “to do a complete analysis of our kitchen as to new cooking techniques, new cooking systems with the objective of reducing labor, making our products more consistent and delivered to the consumer with a higher level of quality, reducing utility costs, eliminating the use of natural gas to the extent we do today and so on and so forth,” Rensi continued.

Service enhancements

Among the other dynamics to be tested at the 6,600-square-foot Bolingbrook store is what Rensi calls “flex service,” or a switchover from scaled-down service at lunch to full table service at dinner. “At lunch,” he said, “it's more about grab and go,” with service kept to an hour.  He didn’t provide details, or how it might be different from the limited service options that Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse, among others, have tried in recent years.

Menu changes

Another initiative is intended to bolster Famous Dave’s appeal while also bringing down food costs. As Rensi put it, the chain doesn’t have to serve smoked meats in big slabs that take up most of the plate. He said the brand will try using barbecue meat as the main ingredient of tacos, sliders, flatbread options, burritos and lettuce wraps, with an eye on bringing down prices as well as costs.

He also cited the need to broaden Famous Dave’s array of proteins. The chain is already experimenting with lamb, goat, seafood and bison.

Chili’s drink-mix booster

The workhorse of Brinker International’s casual-dining group is enjoying a new high in the portion of sales that come from the bar, according to CEO Wyman Roberts. He told investors that drinks year to date have generated 14 percent of sales, “the best alcoholic beverage mix we’ve ever seen.”

The driver, he said, is a carryover of Chili’s emphasis on quality and freshness. In particular, a blueberry and pineapple infused margarita has been “very successful.”

The drink is also consistent with Brinker’s earlier announced intention to play up Chili’s Mexican options. The chain rolled out a revamped line of fajitas while advertising what’s known as Guacamole Live, or guacamole prepared tableside.

About every fifth customer now opts for one of the chain’s new Fresh Mex choices, Roberts said.

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