Pump primes for growth with new ops approach

NEW YORK Since 1997, The Pump Energy Food quick-service chain has been catering to health-conscious diners here with protein shakes, egg white omelets, and concoctions with cute names that are heavy on lean meats, tofu and vegetables.

Now with five locations and a cult following that includes celebrities like Tyra Banks and Brooke Shields, Pump is getting an extreme makeover under new majority owners, Wexford Capital, a private equity firm based in Greenwich, Conn.  Leading the charge is Adam Eskin, 26, who left Wexford to become chief executive of Pump.

The former investment banker, a longtime Pump patron, is rolling up his sleeves to standardize systems and operations for the home-grown chain to pave the way for a major expansion. Eskin has an ownership stake along with Pump’s founders, Steven and Elena Kapelonis.

The company is replacing old-fashioned cash registers with a more high-tech point-of-sale system, turning to central production for key items, and implementing an assembly-line approach to food preparation to replace the current controlled chaos in its typically tiny spaces. Pump employs about 225 people and does half of its business via deliveries. The average check is $10, and all food is prepared to order.

“They have been doing a great job for 10 years of serving great food,” Eskin said. Nevertheless, he said, Pump had “no systems, no infrastructure, no training programs, nothing.”

However, that hasn’t stopped Pump from becoming profitable, Eskin indicated. Its busiest location, on West 55th Street in midtown Manhattan, brings in $4,500 per week from a 590-square-foot space.

By the first quarter of next year, Eskin hopes to open the first new Pump in more than two years. It will boast a streamlined menu — the current one has about 150 choices —larger dining and production areas, and new graphics.

The complexity of the current menu is “hard to digest” for both team members and customers, Eskin said. Ordering slows down service, especially when a new cook or guest is unfamiliar with the ingredients in, for instance, a Dionysus, also known as a No. 54, which has grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions baked with tahini and soy sauce and served over pasta.

The new menu will feature categories like sandwiches, salads and platters. Patrons also will be able to select their ingredients from a list to create their own meal.

While awaiting the debut of the new Pump, the current restaurants are adding efficiencies. Before, all prep was done in each location. Now, several produce items are being prepared centrally at the largest Pump and delivered to the other stores. Eskin currently is looking for a commissary space in Manhattan to beef up quality control and is considering outsourcing production altogether of certain proprietary recipes.

While Pump is busiest at lunch, it also draws strong sales at dinner. To handle crunch times, communication is key, Eskin said. Since food is prepared to order, waits can get long. New are walkie-talkies for the kitchen and the front-of-the-house. If there’s a backup in either area, team members are instructed to inform each other.

“We’re making sure everyone communicates and is calm,” Eskin said.

Also new are deployment charts. Each day the manager goes over positions so there is no confusion about who does what in the kitchen. There also are new guidelines for opening and closing the restaurants. When Eskin researched point-of-sale systems, he selected a local vendor who was across the street from a Pump so the company could have easy access to help.

Eskin, who graduated from Brown University with a degree in business economics, said he relishes the opportunity to grow Pump into a significant enterprise.  He envisions a chain of some 200 Pumps across the United States, and believes the timing is great.

 “Based on a macro perspective of the world and in the foodservice industry in particular, there is going to continue to be a trend that will accelerate both toward healthful eating as well as quick service,” he said, adding that he views Pump as a “combination of both.”