Firehouse Subs is hoping its first major redesign in a quarter century will help franchisees cope with mounting labor pressure as well as evolving consumer behavior.
The “restaurant of the future” prototype, slated to open later this month in the fast-casual sandwich chain’s home base of Jacksonville, Fla., cost the company more than $1 million, including consumer research and consulting fees, as well as build-out costs, CEO Don Fox said. Future remodels and new stores will not cost as much, he said.
Firehouse Subs’ current layout, Fox said, is “very linear.”
“It’s not very efficient in terms of footsteps,” he said. “The product crosses the aisle twice. In this design, we wanted greater efficiency.”
To that end, the new prototype’s kitchen is 25% smaller than the original. It features a custom-designed sandwich steamer with a drawer—instead of a clamshell top—that can be stacked to save space and steam more sandwiches at the same time. What’s more, the new equipment shaves a full minute off the previous time of two minutes and 45 seconds required to heat a sandwich, Fox said.
Once the opening bugs are worked out, he hopes to operate the new prototype with one fewer person per shift than at existing units.
“If that proves out, that will be a substantive savings,” Fox said. “I really am confident we’re going to get some reduction in kitchen labor and a reduction in speed of service.”
The kitchen area has also moved from the front of the store toward the rear, allowing the new deign to highlight the off-premise pickup area.
“In existing restaurants, it’s nebulous,” he said. “So people linger and loiter in an unorganized fashion. This is a much more specific, dedicated area.”
And with good reason: Off-premise now makes up 62% of Firehouse’s business, up from 47% of sales six years ago.
For many years, the company required all stores to have at least 50 seats. The new prototype only has seating for 28, including an eight-seat community table.
“You’re reducing the dining room size, but we always want to appeal to families or have seating for a larger group,” Fox said. “Everybody is seeing declines in dine-in business. When does it stop? Are we going to reach a point of equilibrium? I don’t think anybody can predict when that point of leveling is going to be.”
Fox said the company’s franchisees are enthusiastic about the prototype, especially if the new design does anything to relieve labor pressures.
“Anything we might do to ease that burden is very welcome,” he said.
The new design does not currently include self-ordering kiosks. But Fox said that is not out of the question.
Firehouse Subs has more than 1,170 restaurants in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Canada.