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FE&SEditorial Archives2003June — Chain Profile

Red Lobster's Coastal Home Design

Engineered for efficiency and effective quality control, this chain's new Coastal Home design features a residential-style exterior, a bright, colorful dining environment and a back-of-the-house 'T-line' layout that expedites food assembly. Another key feature is a remote pantry station where appetizers, salads, desserts and biscuits are prepared.

A bright new exterior resembles a seaside, residential home (above). In the kitchen, a "T-line" layout has improved efficiency because it eliminates criss-crossing by staff, which is required in a linear layout.
Photos courtesy of Red Lobster

During its 35 years in business, Red Lobster, a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants, has long been a leader in the casual-dining segment. This chain's executives are well aware that they can't allow their brand to rest on yesterday's laurels as the segment becomes more competitive and customers continue to expect higher-quality food and service from their dining experiences.

Red Lobster's most recent revitalization has come in the form of a new prototype design concept, called Coastal Home, that was first introduced in May 2001 at newly built restaurants in Orlando, Kissimmee and Destin, Fla., and Concord, N.C. Since its debut, 12 new restaurants have been constructed with the Coastal Home design and nearly 215 restaurants have been remodeled with elements of the prototype. Red Lobster's current unit count is 672, including 31 in Canada.

"Our objectives were to reduce the cost of our prototype and improve design efficiencies," explained John Altomare, senior vice president of concept development for Red Lobster in Orlando. "With Coastal Home, we reduced the restaurant's size by 100-square-feet, from 7,200 to 7,100." Though the production space was altered only slightly, he said, a reduction in the kitchen size of about 18% allowed the installation of 46 more seats. In addition, the construction cost of the new Coastal Home units was reduced by $27 a square foot.

When the Coastal Home project began in 1999, recalled Altomare, "We set out to design a restaurant concept that would break from the old wharf-side model and exhibit a more contemporary style to help evoke customers' memories of being in a seaside retreat, whether that be in Maine or California. We wanted Coastal Home units to be oases for diners, an escape for everything that is going on in their lives."

The new prototype came about as a result of data-gathering about customers and consumer habits, as well as the expertise of professionals from Darden and Red Lobster; the Chute Gerdeman design firm of Columbus, Ohio; WD Partners, an architecture and engineering firm, also in Columbus; and Strategic Resource Engineering (SRE), a foodservice operations engineering firm in Miami, owned by WD Partners. SRE worked with Red Lobster specifically to improve the functionality and efficiency of Coastal Home units.

Among the most notable aspects of the development process was the creation of a mocked-up working kitchen, which was set up in a warehouse in Florida. In this working model, all the equipment was positioned and operated for a week to produce meals that had been ordered by actual Red Lobster customers at functioning restaurants. According to Mark Godward, president, SRE, alterations were made on the spot in this simulated environment, which resulted in potential savings of "many thousands of dollars." The process, he added, "ensured that all proposed changes were operationally practical."

Starting with the prototype's exterior, the change in appearance is dramatic. "Our old style was uneventful outside," Altomare admitted. In contrast, the new exterior resembles a seaside, residential home with its white-washed walls, copper-colored roof and metal railing that encompasses the building and porch. Inside, a 25-foot-high foyer forms a tower that showcases illuminated hanging fish sculptures. The dining area, designed with light wood framing, wavy blue glass, whimsical fish sculptures on the walls and fish-shaped bar tables, is sectioned into separate environments by low wall dividers and booths. Large aquariums also contribute to the atmosphere without obstructing the dining room's open sight lines.

A freestanding bar is a focal point for the restaurant and is, in fact, larger and more prominent than the bar in older units. The bar also serves as a symbolic dividing wall between the front and back of the house. Guests, therefore, have a partial view of the kitchen and pantry from some locations. Allowing customers to see foods being cooked reinforces Red Lobster's emphasis on fresh, just-in-time preparation.

In the back of the house, the linear chef's line found in older Red Lobster units was replaced by a T-line. "The linear line is functional and has worked well for us," Altomare noted. "It has a conveyor oven on one side, fryers at the other end, and all the menu items are brought together in the middle. However, when we looked at the opportunity to completely redesign the restaurant, we realized the flow of our food products could be improved."

"Many chains have been - and are - successful with the linear model," noted Godward. "But when you operate one, a lot of criss-crossing from one part of the kitchen to another is needed to get meals out. This isn't the most efficient way to produce food. In addition, there are more opportunities for a breakdown in communication among staff at various stations."

With the new T-line configuration, however, ingredients for entrées are assembled at the base of the line. Items are placed on plates or other serving ware and into a six-foot-long conveyor/impingement oven. Meanwhile, while products are cooking in this oven, other menu items are being prepared in a convection oven (baked potatoes), on a grill (steaks), in fryers (breaded fried shrimp and french fries) and a convection steamer (rice). When a plate with an entrée such as shrimp scampi, for example, comes out of the oven, grilled and fried items, as well as accompaniments, are added to the plate at assembly areas before finished meals are taken directly to customers. "We can better coordinate cooking times," Altomare pointed out.

In addition to a reconfiguration of the cooking line, the engineering process also identified potential new efficiencies and ways each piece of equipment could be used more effectively. Changes made included reducing the number of fryers from three to two and reducing the size of six fry baskets so they fit into just two fryers.

Substituting one larger long walk-in for several walk-ins used at separate prep stations was another adjustment made to the equipment package in Coastal Home units. "We carefully segregate products in this walk-in," noted Altomare. "For example, we must keep freshly breaded products separate from products that create a lot of moisture."

Another key component of the Coastal Home kitchen design was the repositioning of a pantry, where appetizers, salads (offered with every meal), desserts and Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits (made continuously throughout the day) are prepared away from the flow of entrée production, to a dedicated location closer to the dining room. "Of all trips made by servers to the kitchen, the vast majority are to the pantry area," explained Godward. "So, we put all the high-traffic, quick turnaround prep a little closer to the dining room, but also separated from the entrée kitchen. That way, the entrée kitchen staff can focus on the quality of their dishes."

The Coastal Home pantry is equipped with a cold rail for salad prep, a fryer, convection oven, a salamander, a reach-in refrigerator and an undercounter freezer. In addition, a bain marie is located here to heat soups. In the front of the house, efficiencies at server stations were also evaluated as part of the engineering process. Stations were positioned so servers had to travel shorter distances to reach them, thereby increasing the amount of time they can spend with guests. Stations were also designed so servers can maneuver easily without interfering with one another's tasks, such as using the POS system or refilling beverages.

Red Lobster restaurants that have been built or remodeled with the Coastal Home design feature a contemporary, yet comfortable dining environment.

Among the benefits reaped by Red Lobster with its Coastal Home design is labor efficiency. The prototype design allowed the restaurant to serve more guests without adding labor. "With this new kitchen, everything the cooks need is within a turn or a step, so less motion is needed," Altomare commented, adding that this design also allows more efficient operation during slower periods.

According to Godward, the reduction in work content at different stations is between 10% to 20%. "We observed financial data from four stores across the country, analyzed that data and established the relationship between the space of the kitchen and the financial goals," he explained.

The need for Coastal Home units to change with the times also influenced prototype design decisions. "We needed to add flexibility to keep these kitchens as productive as possible as we go forward," Altomare commented. "As cuisine continues to evolve and prep continues to change, we will look to bring the discovery of new flavors and new preparations to our guests. It's important for Coastal Home kitchens to accommodate whatever those additions may be in the future." In days ahead, he added, Red Lobster may add whole pan roasted fish and steamed fish prepared Asian-style to its menu.

HACCP compliance was another key priority throughout the design process. All equipment, including prep tables, is on wheels so it can be moved easily. There are fewer walls, so equipment isn't backed up to solid surfaces. "We're 35 years old, so building codes have changed," Altomare said. "For example, we didn't pay as much attention to the accessibility of hand sinks 35 years ago.

"The key to success is always listening to guests and trying to understand what they are looking for in their current dining experience," Altomare concluded. "We spent a lot of time gathering data and figuring out what would be the ideal seafood experience for our guests." By minimizing the square footage of the kitchen and maximizing the efficiency of its equipment and workflow, the costs of the prototype were reduced, as well. Now that's a valuable catch.

Facts of Note

  • Red Lobster's parent company: Darden Restaurants (RL is a subsidiary of Darden)
  • Founded: 1968
  • Units: 672 company-owned restaurants
  • Total sales: $2.34 billion for FY '02
  • Unit growth: 8-12 for FY '03
  • Coastal Home design will be incorporated into 150 planned remodels
  • Average check: $15.50-$16.50
  • Customers: 2.7 million/week
  • More emphasis will be placed on the bar, with hopes to increase alcohol sales from 8% to 11%
  • Size of units: Approximately 7,100-square-feet
  • Labor: On average, 100 employees per restaurant

Coastal Home Players:

President of Red Lobster: Edna Morris
Senior Vice President of Concept Development for Red Lobster: John Altomare
Interior Designers: Chute Gerdeman, Columbus, Ohio
Operations Engineering: Strategic Resource Engineering (SRE), Miami, Mark Godward, president.
Architecture and Engineering: WD Partners, Columbus, Ohio
Equipment Purchasing Team: Headed by Les Karel, Darden Restaurants
Equipment: Purchased directly from the manufacturers. Red Lobster coordinates its own installation of equipment.

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