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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2005 — January — Restauratour

Mi Casa, Su Casa
A rambling Mexican hacienda inspires On The Borderís latest prototype.

Take an online tour of On The Border
Photography by Todd Winters

Viewed even from the highway, the On The Border restaurant in West Des Moines, Iowa, looks like someplace you’d want to visit. Stucco, stone and cedar blend to create an impressive structure, enlivened with touches of bright color.

The visual excitement continues inside. The vast space is divided into three distinct rooms, visible to each other through doorways, archways and windows. Guests enter into a stonewalled “courtyard,” complete with a vaulted timber ceiling, wrought-iron balcony and yellow-framed windows.

To the left is a bright-blue “family room” with sepia-tone photos and authentic Mexican artwork. To the right is a large bar, outfitted with bar-height tables and booths, including several tucked into the back wall.

Standing out among all that visual excitement is the star of the show, the Fajita Grill. Visible from nearly every point in the restaurant, the grill tempts guests with the sounds and aromas of sizzling meats and vegetables.

The Fajita Grill and all the other visual cues and textures make On The Border warm and comfortable, qualities that the most previous redesign lacked, says David Orenstein, president of the 120-unit, Dallas-based chain.

“It didn’t perform as well as we wanted and didn’t get great consumer feedback,” Orenstein says of the 2002 prototype, which the company rolled to about three-fourths of the system.

A Fresh Perspective
So, in a rare move, On The Border turned to an outside design firm. “They wanted a different set of eyes, a different perspective,” says Mark Lauterbach, vice president at RTKL Associates Inc., a Dallas-based design firm.

Lauterbach agrees with Orenstein’s assessment of the old prototype. “It was starting to look like a lot of other Mexican restaurants,” he says. “My line was that if they added a drive-thru, they’d be just like Mexican fast food.”

Mexican Grill & Cantina
Brinker International, Dallas
RTKL Associates Inc., Dallas
Des Moines, Iowa
Opening Date
Oct. 28, 2004
6,601 square feet
Average Check
Unit Volume
$3 million to $3.2 million
Expansion Plans
8 to 10 in fiscal 2005 (ending in June), 12 to 15 in fiscal 2006

Teamed with On The Border’s in-house design team, Lauterbach began working on the new prototype in February 2003. After interviewing On The Border management and researching the history of the concept, he presented On The Border with three themes: Fresca, which evoked a traditional Mexican market; Nuevo Mexico, modeled after the work of contemporary Mexican architect Luis Barragan; and Casa, which drew inspiration from a large, rambling Mexican home.

Casa resonated with On The Border executives. The visually stimulating, comfortable array of rooms “was really tied to the original concept,” Lauterbach says.

The Fajita Grill, too, harks back to the original design, which featured a tortilla-making station. The tortilla station “went away because of operational issues,” Lauterbach says, but the grill resurrects the idea of food made fresh for customers to see. “It’s a conceptual idea that celebrates their most popular dish,” he says.

Fiesta for the Eyes
To make the design as authentic as possible, Lauterbach researched the use of stone and colors in Mexican haciendas, and On The Border’s design team traveled to Mexico to find photos and authentic artwork. “This is a small version of a hacienda,” he says, the sole exception perhaps being the green light glowing from underneath the concrete bar. “There was a bit of a push to make the bar a little edgy,” Lauterbach says.

The first new On The Border opened in February 2004 in Little Rock, Ark.; four more have since opened. Orenstein calls the new look a success, saying the company is pleased with the results. “All openings have exceeded expectations,” he says.

The design has rolled out with few changes such as closing the distance between the bar top and the bar back.

Though Orenstein won’t give exact figures, a company spokesman says that the West Des Moines unit is on track to gross $3 million to $3.2 million this year, a figure higher than On The Border’s $2.75 million average unit volume noted in Brinker International’s 2003 annual report.

Orenstein says that guests give high marks to the Fajita Grill, the stone wall in the courtyard, and the bar. “It’s a different feeling [from the older look], but they like it,” he says.

The design is a success operationally, too, according to Orenstein. Moving fajita production from the main kitchen to the grill ensures that servers deliver fajitas to customers hot, fresh and fast. Ticket times during opening weeks have run six minutes shorter, Orenstein says.

Rollout of the new look is off to a running start. On The Border opened five new units in fiscal 2004, and it plans eight to 10 in fiscal 2005 and 12 to 15 in ’06. Orenstein will not say how much the prototype cost. The chain is holding off on remodels, because a majority of stores have been remodeled in the past two years.

Where that remodel focused on efficiency, this one concentrates on customers, Orenstein says. “It’s relevant to today’s consumer looking for a unique design,” he says. “The fresh cues are very important and relevant for today’s guests.”


Guacamole Live: made fresh to order with avocados, tomatoes, chopped jalapeos, cilantro, red onions and freshly squeezed lime juice, $6.99

Firecracker Stuffed Jalapeos: six jalapeos stuffed with chicken and mixed cheeses, tempura-fried and served with pico de gallo and queso, $5.99

Fajita Grill
Fajitas come with tortillas, refried or black beans, Mexican rice, sour cream, pico de gallo and choice of cheese or guacamole

The Ultimate Fajita: mesquite-grilled steak, marinated chicken, smoked barbecue ribs and sauteed shrimp, topped with sauteed peppers and served with garlic butter, $12.99

Monterey Ranch Chicken Fajitas: mesquite-grilled chicken drizzled with ranch dressing, topped with melted pepper Jack cheese and crumbled bacon, $10.99

Choice of Fajita Steak or Chicken: stuffed with Mexican rice, mixed cheeses, black beans, caramelized onions, red bell peppers and sour-cream sauce, and served with a side chopped salad, $8.49

Chocolate Turtle Empanadas: flaky pastries filled with chocolate, caramel and pecans, rolled in cinnamon sugar, served warm with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate and pecan-praline sauce, $4.99


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