A new KFC restaurant in Bracknell featuring the fast food chain’s first ever semi open-plan kitchen is shining a light on what the future looks like for the 870-store group. FEJ meets the man bringing some science to the way in which KFC designs and commissions its kitchens.
Customers walking through the doors of KFC’s new concept store in Bracknell, Berkshire, may find themselves questioning whether they’ve come to the right place.
The exposed ceilings and textured brick-effect walls, dotted with contemporary photographs and illustrations of ingredients, aren’t necessarily what the hungry punter expects to see when heading to the till to place their order for the fried chicken meals that have made the chain so famous.
There is also another feature that may take them by surprise: a semi-open plan kitchen that, for the first time, catapults the back-of-house operation to the very heart of the restaurant. What most won’t realise is that in getting to this point, KFC has spent almost a year reviewing the catering equipment it uses and the way that its kitchens are planned.
“The way we have gone about designing that kitchen has given us the opportunity to open it up and let the customer see into it”
– Mark Baxter
An eight-strong team of product and engineering specialists is responsible for leading the charge as far as catering equipment goes and the Bracknell store tells a story of their efforts to create a kitchen capable of evolving with the businesses’ needs. It is no mean feat when you consider the brand operates almost 900 outlets in the UK.
The man heading that team is operations innovations manager, Mark Baxter, whose background renders him suitably qualified to be driving some of the changes shaping KFC’s equipment purchasing.
“I have been in KFC for three years now, predominantly on the R&D side, but I moved over into the team we call Restaurant Excellence a year ago,” he explains. “I probably just bring a scientific and logical thinking to the approach because I am not an operator by trade, but I have got a team of excellent operators who then can base me in reality.”
That scientific and logical thinking is absolutely crucial to the way in which KFC will now make decisions about catering equipment. In the past, it largely put its faith in long-term experience and measured judgement calls and while that approach certainly got results, the onus now is on a much more transparent course of action.
He says: “We are trying to move from it just being an experience-led decision-making process to one that is more scientific and fact-based. We have put in some math principles and engineering principles in terms of a capacity model and process flows so that we become a centre of excellence for making factually-based decisions on the efficiency of the lobby and kitchen.”
Suppliers that KFC is engaged with have welcomed the new methodology, according to Baxter. “They have embraced it because I think they like the idea of having transparency. It is about us being very clear about what we are trying to achieve and where the business is going and how we are going to support that. Clearly there are going to be some bigger winners in that than others, but I think if we do things with the right kind of morals and act in the right kind of way, and are transparent in all of those processes, people will understand the decisions that are made. They might not like them but they should understand them.”
The Bracknell store project is absolutely critical to where KFC is heading in the future, both as a profit-making business and a foodservice operator. And the knock-on effect for catering equipment procurement is huge.
“Some of the savings have come through good engineering principles in the restaurant design, not because of any harder negotiations with suppliers”
In order to grow the business, the group recognises that it must find ways of complementing its core chicken offering and this is happening in different ways. Partnerships with the likes of Starbucks and Seattle’s Best Coffee have enhanced KFC’s coffee menu, while in Scotland it is currently testing the appetite for burritos. Bosses expect the chain to do far more burgers through a lunchtime period than the brand currently does, while breakfast service will also deliver a greater contribution to sales in future.
Whichever way you look at it, the menu is evolving and the group has to be operationally prepared for what’s to come. “Because the menu mix is going to change significantly, you can’t do that on a kitchen that was designed six or seven years ago,” acknowledges Baxter. “So the redesign of the kitchen is important to us to support the strategic growth platform of the business. The great thing is that the way we have gone about designing that kitchen has given us the opportunity to open it up and let the customer see into it. Hopefully it will take them on that journey of seeing great quality products made for them rather than just delivered through a wall, which is the typical QSR experience.”
Baxter and his team weren’t just tasked with devising a kitchen capable of accommodating a new menu mix and engaging customers, however. They were also challenged with doing it in a way that delivered exactly the same volume and capacity, but for less CAPEX spend on equipment and over a smaller footprint — all while ensuring it is operationally efficient.
Key elements of the kitchen design include an emphasis on equipment capable of facilitating a broader menu mix, new breading machines and a breading table that completely transforms the production process by allowing it to carry out a number of breading activities in parallel, thereby saving time and increasing throughput in peak hours. New themalising ovens that can reheat a bacon roll within 30 seconds have helped to bring on the breakfast offering.
“We have also got some new hot holding units that we think can hold product at better temperatures and give us better quality product through to the customer,and we have got a new beverage machine that can do our Krushems and Kream Balls in a smaller footprint,” he says, citing the likes of Duke Manufacturing, Middleby, TurboChef, Manitowoc and Merrychef as long-standing suppliers that have played an “intrinsic role” in the process.
The results of the team’s work are incredible, as Baxter explains. “We have proven out with this design that we can build a typical drive-thru restaurant with about an average 10% CAPEX saving on equipment — it will typically vary between 8% and 12% depending on the size and shape of the restaurant. We also know that we can save up to 15% of the space required to build a typical restaurant, creating additional customer space. The final part of the puzzle is whether the efficient kitchen means that you can run a better OPEX business off peak and on peak, and the math would suggest we can.”
The saving on equipment is particularly noteworthy for the fact that it hasn’t been achieved by squeezing suppliers’ terms. Instead, it has come from a more considered approach to kitchen design and improved capacity planning.
The deployment of more flexible cooking equipment means less hardware overall is being used, the number of hot holding units has been reduced from three to two and the fries holding unit, which normally sits on the left of the kitchen in a typical restaurant has been moved next to the cookline on the right side of the kitchen underneath a single extraction canopy.
“That has saved us £6,000 on building a second extraction canopy, so some of the savings have just come through some good engineering principles and mathematical principles being used in the restaurant design, not because of any harder negotiations with suppliers,” says Baxter.
Bracknell is currently being used as something of a test site for new pieces of kit, with Baxter’s team currently evaluating no fewer than 12 items of equipment that could make their mark on KFC kitchens in the future. “Not all of those will make it into a typical build going forward, but we will build a business case for each and see how each of those pans out,” he reveals.
What is certain is that what’s happened in Bracknell will now begin to manifest itself in other KFC stores. A further two stores in Exeter and Reading are undergoing similar renovations and plans are afoot to roll out the new design concept nationwide from 2015.
The company’s recipes might be a notable trade secret, but with its new store design elevating the back-of-house operation it certainly hasn’t got anything to hide as far as the kitchen is concerned.