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Famous Dave's high-tech remake

Revamping Famous Dave's into an efficient, technology-driven concept began in a surprisingly low-tech way: with CEO Ed Rensi standing on the curb of the overhaul’s lab and proving ground, a unit in Bolingbrook, Ill.

"I did what I've always done at my restaurants," says the former CEO of McDonald's and founder of Tom and Eddie's. That meant assessing the exterior for underutilized capital, then moving inside and asking the same question about the interior as well as the human capital. What was untapped?

"I wanted to take a typical store and throw the kitchen sink at it," he says. The result is the first of several recast company units that "raise the level of entertainment" and represent a modern barbecue restaurant. Gone is the hodgepodge, rustic decor. In its place is a less-cluttered design with black-and-white photography, an extended patio with room for customers to lounge, and transitional spaces that bring the patio into the bar and the bar into the dining room. There's also a new bar menu that utilizes the meats Famous Dave's already produces, plus a new section of the beverage menu dedicated to craft beers.

Servers now take orders with tablets that transmit tickets directly to a screen in the kitchen, which displays recipes in order so food that takes the most time to fire comes up first. The technology is Famous Dave's response to the rise in labor costs. "We can go from four tables per server to 10," says Rensi. "It [also] lets our servers spend more time with the guests because they're not running back and forth to the kitchen."

The remodel extends to the kitchen, too, where Rensi says he put in a lot of new equipment that improves the quality of the food. He also replaced all the gas burners and hot wells with induction equipment, which will allow the concept to remove six tons of air conditioning, he says.

Famous Dave's never closed during the changes ("I do not close restaurants--ever," Rensi says), instead tackling the redesigns between the hours of 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. over two months.

And Rensi's not done at the test unit yet. In mid-August, it will launch a sports marketing program, to show off its capacity as a sports bar, that will include tailgating in the parking lot. When we visited, rotisserie machines were being installed in the carryout area, so guests will soon be able to take home quarter, half or whole rotisserie chickens as well as fresh-baked bread.

Asked when the changes will be complete, Rensi says "Never." Asked how much time he's giving to study the changes, he says, "None." Already, similar updates are being built into other Chicagoland Famous Dave's stores, where the test is concentrated.

"I'm a guy that believes in failing fast. I only need 50 percent of the facts to make a decision," he says, adding that those who wait for 75 to 80 percent of the information to come in to see what's working and what's not are taking up too much valuable time.

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