starting a quick serve restaurant brand (part 2)

Since we’re going to be operating inside one of our Chevron gas station and convenience store locations in West Los Angeles, we wanted to think about running the restaurant more along the lines of ‘pop-up’ than permanent brick and mortar fixture. The reason for this deliberate mindset is to proactively plan for replicating and scaling the model in the future. We can’t afford to be reliant upon a physical fixture or anything particular to the location itself. If we are able to create the most efficient schematic along with minimizing equipment purchases and keeping our overhead as low as possible, that would permit pouring the most money, time, and effort into the product itself— the delicious food.

Before I continue, in case you had to re-read the ‘inside one of our Chevron gas station and convenience store locations’ part, I completely understand how you might immediately discount a food business located inside a c-store. Do things like second rate, second tier, forgivable wannabe fast food come to mind? Well, we’re all about breaking away from those stereotypes and outdated notions of whatever you have been used to. We’re committed to not only setting the bar high but actually exceeding it with consistently great execution!

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

Equipment

Most of the equipment we decided to use was left over from a sandwich QSR we started six years ago but closed a couple years afterwards. Unapologetically stated, it didn’t manage to break even $500 sales per day because we failed to understand the market and reckon with the Subway 100 feet away. Let me not downplay that not enough TLC was invested. With that being said, failure is not an option for us given that we’re going to nurse this baby to optimal health!

The few remaining pieces (refrigerated prep counter units and some standalone prep tables) came from our chef’s former Indian restaurant. So our only major purchases came in the form of a steam table (~$1500) which required some professional electric and plumbing installation and three LG digital signage 55" TVs (~$2100) and mounting brackets which also required professional setup. Add the Square Stand Kit with an iPad Air 32 GB along with a Star Micronics SP742ML ethernet kitchen printer, USB bar code scanner, and extra printer rolls which ran us close to $1800. Then the final touch was the addition of ceiling mounted speakers (placed throughout the store) which connect to a Sonos system ($1500). We want to set the mood with chill and down-tempo music as customers enter the store.

The nearly perfect rectangular layout of the convenience store enabled for an easy subdivision of the store for a QSR operation. Of course, this was intentional as when we had taken over the lease for this location more than 10 years ago, there had already been a Mexican food QSR that had been allocated a third of the space. Since a hood and exhaust had already been installed along the back wall, it didn’t make sense to move any existing cooking equipment around. Therefore, the burners, fryer, and tandoor oven were placed along the back wall with prep tables flanking those on either side along with a steam table placed behind the shelves which then blended into the quartz counter-top where we have placed the POS.

Square Point of Sale

As mentioned before, we decided on the Square Stand Kit with an iPad Air which has a USB hub device allowing the bar code scanner, receipt printer, and chip card reader to be connected to the stand. Setup took less than one hour and the only complication was getting the Square software to recognize the USB printer which simply required killing the app and restarting it. Adding menu items to the POS had been performed on the Square portal a couple of days prior at the office with some tweaking to prices once we were physically at the restaurant going through each item. To make items easier to identify and reduce monochromatic screen eye strain, I started to add some pictures using my iPhone camera as dishes were being prepared. But since we also wanted some more professional looking pictures for social media, I took it upon myself to bring out the ‘big guns’ SLR and click away.

A series of initial test orders were placed using a chip credit card, a chip-less credit card (requiring magnetic stripe swipe on the stand), and an iPhone for Apple Pay. All transactions (followed by refunds of the purchase price) were quick and successful.

Internet Outage Concerns

What happens if the primary internet connection goes down? Doomsday followed by running for cover? NOOOO!

Find a secondary connection.

A couple months ago I had looked into low costs hot spot devices and data subscriptions which we could use on an as needed basis. Verizon has several to choose for which I decided to purchase two refurbished Verizon Ellipsis Jet Packs (4G LTE) . The monthly maintenance fee is $15 plus any data charges which work out to be less than $2 per day on ‘full throttle’ Square usage. I was able to determine this daily usage number since a couple of weeks after I had received the devices I brought it over to our sandwich QSR site where the internet had gone down. We ran it for nearly that full day and then a couple weeks later the same thing happened. Both times data fee was seen to be less than $2.

Test Kitchen Day 1

The first part of the day was dedicated to performing a huge grocery and packaging shop (>$1000) to make sure we had enough ingredients and supplies to run through many iterations of the 9 dishes and into the first week of opening. One day prior, the fresh produce had been delivered from a local supplier that our chef had developed a longstanding relationship at his previous restaurant.

While we are very committed to an absolutely no styrofoam packaging policy, we still needed to test out multiple version of different plastic containers for bowls, 4 ounce and 6 ounce smaller cups for raita and our signature cumin potato side, and a 16 ounce durable containers for larger portions of jeera rice, daal, vegetables, and curries. Also, the Frankie will be wrapped in a combination of wax paper and foil. Taking a cue from Chipotle’s decision to stop offering spoons and knives in the metallic cups next to the fountain machine (you have to ask the cashier for one), we decided to purchase forks, spoons, and knives according to the following ratio 3:2:1. All items will then be placed in recycled paper bags pre-affixed with stickers of our logo.

Once we had returned from the grocery shop, our chef and team members quickly started to prepare the first dish—the ultimate Indian comfort food pairing of yellow daal and rice. It’s a delicious knockout combination of some of the most basic ingredients (lentils and rice) that seems to leave even the most die-hard carnivores satisfied due to its beauty in simplicity. It truly is a complete meal containing an adequate amount of calories, protein, full spectrum of amino acids, and fiber.

Yellow daal and rice jeera bowl

Test Kitchen Day 2

Mango Lassi. Garlic Naan. Chili Naan. Chicken Curry. Chicken Tikka Masala. Chicken Tikka. Some of it freshly straight out of the tandoor. The rest of it being simmered away for hours to achieve the perfect flavor profile.

Sadly, we weren’t able to fully vet out the Frankie but that’s because we’re trying to sort out a last minute bread issue. We’re cutting it close but refuse to capitulate to any shortcuts or compromise— a tortilla or some unforgivably poor excuse for stretched naan/lavash.

Mild disagreements can arise from six people trying to perfectly calibrate balance of flavor, salt, and spice. While I (and Dean) tend to live life a little bit more on the edge preferring a more spicy taste, Priyanka definitely wants to tone it down. Our chef and team prefer middle of the road spiciness with a touch less salt than I would expect from longtime Indian restaurant veterans. Good for them for not committing what I consider the Indian restaurant cardinal sin — gratuitously heavy salt, heavy cream, heavy oil, and heavy spice!

Given that we are keen on replicating and then scaling this concept sometime down the road, we’re trying to make every effort to standardize recipes. But since we’re still working out details of the flavor balance, we’re going easy on our chef. For now at least…

Freshly made garlic naan straight out of the tandoor oven
Chicken Tikka cooking in the tandoor oven

Yelp Page

I should also mention that upon returning back to the office on day 1, I added the business to Yelp to then realize we needed a phone number (separate from the convenience store’s). Firstly, this was necessary for verification from Yelp that the business exists and second because we’ll inevitably get phone orders. While I haven’t placed a phone food order in years, we have many customers at our other QSRs that do. Needless to say, that should be setup by the internet company (AT&T) shortly.

Going back to the verification, since we needed to enter a phone number, I used the convenience store one. Lo and behold a mysterious Phoenix (Arizona) based number called the store later that day and a couple times the next. The cashiers at the store had no idea why someone from Yelp was calling but luckily when I was there (on Day 2), I picked up the phone after hearing the ringer go off for at least half a minute without anyone wanting do so! It was the Yelp representative who then told me that to complete the business verification he needed to see that our physical address was detailed on our webpage. In the process of getting our web presence up and running a month prior, we had just posted the main logo (see previous post) without any consideration as to where this business is actually located! #FAIL

Some More Considerations

Trying not to leave any stone unturned, we want to proactively document anything and everything that involves some sort of workflow or process. The following initially come to mind which we want to have tackled by the end of the first week:

  1. Open, setup, close, and ongoing maintenance checklist
  2. Calendar of rotating shifts. Since Priyanka, Dean, and I are still running other businesses we need to determine how we would be able to split our time at the restaurant.
  3. POS start of day verification
  4. Social media post schedule for daily/weekly specials in addition to some pretty food pics
  5. Alternate dietary preference accommodation: cauliflower rice, quinoa, kale/mixed greens salad base, etc.

…this list is by no means comprehensive in any way!

As a parting comment, there’s something humbling about broadcasting to the world the trials of opening a business that increases your own self-awareness about it and then somehow makes you even more accountable to its success.

Stay tuned for part 3 (pre-opening day)!!

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