The Loop Pizza Grill
E&S in the kitchens at this expanding fast-casual chain must be durable to handle the growing volume of freshly prepared grilled foods, pizzas and salads ordered daily.
A crisp logo identifies one of The Loop’s Jacksonville, Fla., locations.
A comfortable, relaxing, but slightly edgy color scheme was selected for the suburban units, including this Jacksonville location.
Photos courtesy of The Loop Pizza Grill
At its inception, The Loop Pizza Grill was a risky venture. In 1980, Mike and Terry Schneider were deep in debt and needed an alternative to filing for bankruptcy after an expansion of Applejacks, their Jacksonville, Fla., restaurant and entertainment nightclub, failed. In order to pay off the bank loans they had taken for the expansion, they decided to stay in the business they knew and open a less specialized restaurant concept that appealed to a broader customer base.
“We borrowed money from a friend and transferred the Applejacks’ equipment and furniture to a site in the trendy San Marco section near downtown Jacksonville,” Mike Schneider says. “We named the 60-seat, fast-casual concept after the downtown business district in Terry’s hometown of Chicago. Some six months later, the new restaurant received a very kind newspaper review. That day, customers were lined up to get in and from that point we have continued to evolve and keep the concept fresh and current.”
Schneider spent the first six years behind the counter learning the business before expansion began in the late 1980s. Each of the next eight years saw a new Loop open in a different suburb. “In 1992, we decided that growing by expansion internally was cost-prohibitive, labor-intensive and time-consuming, so we decided to franchise,” Schneider says. “But, we had varying success, so we took a time-out to assess our support sytems, and then began expanding again.”
Today, The Loop Pizza Grill chain consists of five company-owned and 16 franchised units. Another 85 units are under construction and/or development and will open during the next five years in the Southeast. A typical unit is 4,200-square-feet with 120 seats and interior décor described on the web site as “funky, upbeat, relaxed and casual.”
Co-Founders: Mike Schneider, chief executive officer, and Terry Schneider, chief concept officer
Vice President of Operations: Mark Starbuck
Operations Field Supervisors: Chris Hartley, who also functions as purchasing, facilities and construction manager, and Trey Kirwin
Director of Marketing and Communications: Cathy Manzon
Director of Training: Sandy Friend
Executive Chef: Eric Streets
Interior Designer: Larry Wilson, Rink Design, Jacksonville, Fla.
Foodservice Consultant: Bids currently being accepted from consultants for prototypes
Equipment Dealers: Bids currently being accepted
At this writing, new Loop restaurant prototypes are currently under development. “Like our current restaurants, the future units will include a comfortable front-of-the-house ambiance in either an edgy urban, a softer suburban or culturally appropriate college campus motif that appeals to neighborhood customers,” Schneider adds.
In developing the interior design, co-founder Terry Schneider is collaborating with Larry Wilson, principal in Rink Design Partnership Inc., of Jacksonville. “Service will continue to be friendly and hospitable, meaning servers know guests by their names and how they like their food prepared,” Mike Schneider notes. “At the same time we want the back of the house to be up-to-date with high-quality systems, making it as efficient as possible.”
“The main changes in the prototype will take place in the front of the house,” echoes Chris Hartley, operations field supervisor who also functions as purchasing, facilities and construction manager. “The back-of-the-house equipment will be similar. Yet, because our units aren’t typically freestanding, the kitchen layouts will vary depending on the size and shape of the spaces we occupy.”
Currently, The Loop Pizza Grill units feature semi-open kitchens, which are visible to customers when standing at the front order counter. Customers can see an expediter who places food on a stainless-steel pass-through. They can also see the back-of-the-grill cook as he prepares burgers, fish, chicken and vegetables, and other staff taking pies in and out of the pizza oven. The customer side of the pass-through station features made-to-order salad and milkshake stations that are in full or partial view depending on the location of the stations in each unit. In the new prototypes, these stations will be more visible.
In a typical 4,200-square-foot unit, The Loop stores food in a walk-in cooler, a freezer and dry storage after it arrives at the loading dock. A dishwashing area is located in the back, as well.
A char grill, fryer and range are used in the grill area to prepare burgers, sandwiches and wraps, as well as steak fries, onion rings, soups and chili.
According to Hartley, the remainder of the kitchen is arranged into three basic sections. One station, where pizza is prepared, is equipped to make both the original menu attraction — authentic, deep-dish Chicago-style pizza with a cornmeal-based crust — and thin-crusted, California-style pies topped with ingredients such as spicy barbecued chicken, sausage and goat cheese, and grilled vegetables. E&S installed in this section includes an upright, single-door dough cooler, prep tables, a sheeter and a conveyor oven. Though pie dough was made from scratch in the early days, a manufacturer now produces it to spec and the individual units par-bake it daily. Toppings are freshly made and fresh herbs are chopped daily.
Along the same wall as the pizza station, but under a separate hood, is the grill station, equipped with lowboy refrigerators and char grills on which cooks prepare a variety of burgers, fish, chicken and vegetables for sandwiches and wraps. Also in this section are fryers for cooking steak fries and onion rings and a four-burner range for sautéing vegetables, heating soups and on-site preparation of chili. Stainless-steel worktables and a two-well steam table with removable spillage pans separate the pizza and grill stations.
Closest to the front counter is the made-to-order salad station. “We’re very proud of our salads,” Hartley says of the menu section, which accounts for nearly 25% of food sales. This station is equipped with refrigerated worktables and undercounter refrigerators.
In the front counter section are a dipper well and mixers for making another restaurant specialty, old-fashioned, hand-dipped milkshakes and malts. Also in this area is a glass display unit with refrigerated storage above for bottled beer and wine and miscellaneous storage below.
The dining room, which is furnished with a variety of seating arrangements, features two millwork beverage stations. Ice is backloaded out of view from the customers rather than stored on top of the beverage dispensers.
As The Loop Pizza Grill chain expands, Schneider and Hartley emphasize, food quality and variety must continue to differentiate these restaurants from their competitors. E&S that is durable, consistent and helps facilitate staff efficiency will be essential for the chain’s future success.
|FACTS OF NOTE
Opened: 1981 in Jacksonville, Fla., in the San Marco section near downtown Jacksonville. The concept, a pioneer of fast-casual, began as a 60-seat restaurant focusing on both lunch and dinner, serving authentic deep-dish Chicago-style pizza with a cornmeal-based crust baked in a deck oven and half-pound, cooked-to-order, char-broiled burgers on toasted buns with steak fries. Chicago-style hot dogs, an Italian beef sandwich and a salad bar also were featured.
Headquarters: Jacksonville, Fla.
Units: Five company-owned in the Jacksonville area and 16 franchised. Eighty-five units are under construction and/or development to be opened during the next five years in the Southeast. Future franchisees or hosts will include multi-unit developers, college campuses (the unit at Duke University currently has the largest sales volume) and locations managed and/or franchised by contract companies.
Size: Ranges from 3,200-square-feet with an adjacent patio to 4,800-square-feet
Seats: Average, 120 seats inside; 30-40 on patio
Average Check: $8
Total Annual Sales: In 2004, $1.2 million per unit
Transactions: 415 per day
Hours: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. at most units
Menu Specialties: Deep-dish Chicago-style pizza and thin-crusted pizza; grilled burgers, sandwiches and wraps; made-to-order salads, including a Caesar salad (a made-to-order Caesar salad brought the chain much notoriety in its early days); sides; and hand-dipped milkshakes. Salads comprise 25% of sales; pizza, 25% (thin-crust is now more popular than deep-dish); grilled items, 30%; beverages, 13% (only 1-5% from alcoholic beverages).
Staff: 40/unit (avg. 12 per shift)
Equipment Investment: $110,000-$140,000