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Archive for Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chain reaction

By choice or by mandate, fast food restaurants are renovating properties

April 22, 2006

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Dipika Patel, of Lawrence, works at the renovated Taco Bell restaurant at Sixth and Michigan streets. The new interior of the store is brighter and has more modern-looking furniture.

Dipika Patel, of Lawrence, works at the renovated Taco Bell restaurant at Sixth and Michigan streets. The new interior of the store is brighter and has more modern-looking furniture.

Fast food has been getting a little faster at a few Lawrence establishments lately.

As the percentage of sales at the drive-through window has increased in the past few years, local chains are pouring millions of dollars into reconstruction, hoping to convince their customers to dine in.

So how do restaurants approach such massive physical overhauls? For some, the best way to begin may seem odd: bulldozing the building to the ground. The strategy has some hidden motives - and benefits.

The Taco Bell on Sixth Street was one such restaurant. Though the demise of some buildings may be written in the stars, this one's was in the contract.

"We're franchise-owned, and in our franchise agreement with corporate, every 20 years you have to 'scrape and rebuild,'" said Connie Smith, director of operations for LSC Inc., which owns the store. "The old one was 20 years old."

The building was torn to the ground before reconstruction commenced, and though the costs of the demolition, rebuilding and loss from downtime are borne by the franchisee, Smith understands the corporation's motivation and is optimistic about the burden.

"I think they like to keep their image up. As a franchisee, we think for our customers it's better to have a clean and fresh site," she said. "I think the average customer appreciates the newness of the restaurant. We've given them the fresh new look, and I think every customer likes a fresh new look. It's like going into a new home."

The new building and decor have drawn some curiosity. Since the establishment re-opened, the percentage of dine-in customers has increased by 5 percent, Smith reports, and though dine-in still only constitutes 35 percent of business, she sees it as progress.

Double the offerings

Another restaurant that has received a strong response from reconstruction is the Long John Silver's on 23rd Street, which not only rebuilt but reformatted itself as a multibrand restaurant. It is now home to an A&W as well.

"So far it's been a pretty big hit with everyone. The folks that used to come here, the regulars, they're coming here and pulling me aside, pulling our crew members aside and saying, 'Thanks, this is really great,'" said Marc Schmidt, the area coach for the brand.

Like Taco Bell, the restaurant was bulldozed to the ground. It's not too surprising, however, because all three brands are owned by Yum Inc., which also owns Pizza Hut and KFC. It is the first multibrand restaurant of its kind in the area, and Schmidt hopes he will lure customers with almost endless choices.

"I think the positive to it and the feedback we're getting from the guests is a lot of the kids prefer the burgers and the hot dogs. You can pretty much appease every customer that walks in the door," said Schmidt, who has worked for Yum for five years.

"Bottom line is, we're all about customer mania," he says. "The customer writes our checks. If the customers stop coming back, it's pretty hard to keep a restaurant open."

And hopefully the customers will keep writing their checks. The median cost of building a new site is $1.1 million, according to www.yumfranchises. com, which provides information for prospective franchisees. And that excludes the cost of demolition. But Schmidt is not dismayed by the numbers, and because the restaurant is corporate-owned, it's not coming out of his pocket. It's all part of the business.

"Pretty much, you invest in the future and basically take care of the guests. You give them something new, something they like," Schmidt said. "You used to drive by and look over, and the store was a little rundown. Now you drive by and think, 'Wow, that looks really nice.'"

Thank you, drive through

And more people have been driving by, and through. Just three days after the reopening on Jan. 2, the site served 119 customers in 30 minutes.

It's numbers like Schmidt saw after reopening his restaurant that have forced chains to shift their focus. One of the biggest innovators in the quick-service business is McDonald's. Patrick Manning, marketing supervisor for Dobski and Associates, the company that owns the four local McDonald's restaurants, knows the industry has new needs.

"We've had to change our business a little bit. Some stores are 70 percent drive-through," Manning said.

Catering to change, the company completely revamped the drive-through at the McDonald's on the east end of Sixth Street, which, with the help of an extra ordering station and computerized order-sorting, doubled its capacity.

"We can get twice as many cars through during our peak period, which are our breakfast hours and our lunch hours," Manning said. "There are two menu boards and two speakers. With the single-line drive-through, the cars were backed up out to Sixth Street. (Now) they can order and pay quicker."

While they were at it, they completely remodeled the store. This time, however, the old site kept its walls.

"We pretty much gutted the inside of the restaurant and put all new decor in the restaurant. We also put in a double-line kitchen," he said.

Despite the new equipment, there's not too much room to grow until McDonald's unveils its next innovation. The shop on east Sixth Street already is near capacity again, but Manning says the company is experimenting with "Remote Order Taking," which is burger-talk for sending a worker out to take orders from your car window, like the Sonic drive-ins.

"McDonald's is always trying to come up with ways to serve the customer. It has helped a lot," Manning said. "Sales are up over here at Sixth Street. We've been really, really pleased with how things have turned out."

Sam Knowlton is a Kansas University student.

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