SPECIAL REPORT: Kitchen overhaul kicks TGI Friday’s back into growth

Karen Forrester - Person

TGI Friday’s overhauled its kitchen practices last year after sales started to drop and the brand feared it was becoming stale. FEJ hears how CEO Karen Forrester set about revamping back-of-house operations and what impact it has had on the brand. 

The red and white stripes of TGI Friday’s are a familiar sight around Britain’s high streets and retail parks and have been beckoning UK diners through the doors since 1986. It is a well-oiled machine with a solid portfolio of almost 80 sites, having opened its 78th in Southampton in February. Known for its American-style food and enthusiastic staff, the group strives to create a ‘Friday feeling’ in each of its restaurants.

But until recently, complaint levels and sales figures were suggesting more of a Monday mood, with costs and pressures mounting and the brand at dire risk of becoming stale.

“Something unusual happened to us,” reveals CEO Karen Forrester. “For the first time in eight years we found ourselves in a situation where our sales had softened. We’d gone into decline and we didn’t know what that felt like because we hadn’t been there before. The easy thing to do is to say the market’s softening, everyone’s feeling it, we must just be part of this. But that’s really not how we do things.”

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In response, Forrester embarked on a tireless nationwide overhaul programme of kitchen practice, kitchen design, menu design and strategy with the aim of reviving the brand. As a result of the changes, not only did TGI re-enter growth in September but it has continued to grow every single week since then and is now enjoying 6% like-for-like sales growth.

Impressively, since Forrester’s intervention, between September and February, 20 TGI Friday’s restaurants smashed their all-time sales record, with one of them beating it twice already in that time. It would appear then that the entire business outlook for the group has been significantly transformed, with back-of-house adjustments contributing to the turnaround. What actions then did TGI Friday’s take to make it happen?

Kitchen practice overhaul

In addition to sharpening up bar operations and front-of-house staff, the brand implemented an initiative to drive improvements in kitchen practice. Recipes were rigorously tested and strict grab testing was introduced into every kitchen as well a new ‘sexy station’ programme to push the hygiene and efficiency of each chef station.
Forrester explains: “We tested and retested specifications and we looked at whose station was working like clockwork, who had it nailed and who was leading the team — we called it ‘sexy station’ and awarded the chefs. We grab tested pasta, vegetables, fries, cheese, guacamole — everything that these guys should be doing every day but we wanted to make a big show of it.”

“For the first time in eight years we found ourselves in a situation where our sales had softened. We’d gone into decline and we didn’t know what that felt like”

Achieving marginal gains on an individual chef station basis has had telling benefits. On a broader, nationwide scale, menu changes have been an essential part of TGI’s march back to growth. The group has pledged to reduce its menu size to improve the quality of its product and hold a more attractive brand offering. It now has 66 items, down from around 80 a few years ago. Forrester admits that the TGI menu has always been large but that it has dramatically reduced over the last five years. The aim is to continue this reduction so that the kitchen does fewer things to a higher standard.

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Trust and theatre

Undeniably though, TGI’s menu still remains sizeable. And according to Forrester, that can be a problem for a brand. She says that guests look at a big menu and they don’t believe everything can be cooked fresh. Whilst diners are often reassured by chains and their consistency, many customers still hold prejudgments about the freshness of food at multiples. As such, TGI felt it had to build open kitchens to instil trust and reassure consumers.

“We moved to open kitchens so that guests could see we cook from scratch. We have two microwaves in the kitchen but they are literally 30 second pings and so on. We’re moving to try and do fewer things much, much better.

Over many years the top 10 items haven’t changed that much and that’s probably true for most restaurateurs, it doesn’t change that much,” she says.

The growing trend among operators for providing theatre and an experience for their guests means open kitchens are becoming increasingly common. Some commercial kitchens are even employing glass kitchens to draw walk-in trade and kitchen cameras for added theatre. Far from being a gimmick, open kitchens can evidently have a measurably positive impact on business and it is a trend likely to continue as millennials are increasingly demanding memorable experiences at restaurants.

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For TGI at least, building greater trust with consumers who are now repeating visits more and more, has shown investing in open kitchens can have a direct impact on improving sales. Striking a balance between theatre and behind-the-scenes efficiency has been key. Forrester comments: “We call it factory and theatre. Everything that happens behind the scenes and the guest doesn’t see is this massive factory. Everything that the guest sees should be flawless and that should be the theatre.”

Complementing TGI’s kitchen overhaul was a staff reinvigoration process designed to motivate and enthuse employees and management. A doublesided approach – investment in both design and equipment and staff training – saw complaints at restaurants tumble.

In the first full week of 2016, the chain received 350 complaints. Although, Forrester admits, complains will never go away, in the first week of this year the group received only 150 complaints over a much larger week compared to the previous year.

The momentum at TGI Friday’s is building and its appetite for growth is too. This year it will likely hit 80 restaurants in the UK and it is in the process of rolling out its next generation sites. The first concept, which opened in Newcastle last year, dips further into the QSR sector and predominately targets ‘on the go’ consumers. With its Deliveroo operations improving and becoming ever more popular with millennials too, this stalwart of the UK dining scene has its swagger back.

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