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Chili’s discloses plan to cut service times

DALLAS Chili’s Grill & Bar is testing new kitchen equipment and other technology as part of an effort to slash service times, officials of parent company Brinker International Inc. told investors Tuesday.

Coupled with new procedures, the initiatives could cut 15 minutes from what is now a 45-minute meal, said Brinker chief executive Douglas Brooks.

He also cited benefits for the chain’s ToGo takeout program. In the six markets where the new initiatives are in place and Chili’s is advertising the impact on service, ToGo sales have risen by 5 percent to 10 percent, Brooks said.

He noted that the technology upgrades were accompanied by changes in packaging and “new processes,” though he did not provide specifics. The whole package is called the Right and Right On Time initiative, said Charles Sonsteby, Brinker's chief financial officer and executive president.

“We are encouraged by the growth potential of these results and are moving with urgency to roll out the improvements to the entire Chili’s system by the end of the fiscal year 2009,” Brooks said. Brinker’s fiscal year ends next June.

Brooks indicated that Chili’s would spend $25 million to $30 million during fiscal 2009 to retrofit the kitchens of all company units in the 1,282-unit chain. He did not specify what is included in the renovation package, but said the new equipment was designed to cut prep time while improving food quality.

“We are evaluating the equipment’s ability to deliver a reduction in cook times for selected menu items, getting hot, fresh food to guests’ table faster than our traditional kitchens have,” he said.

The system is being tested in 20 stores, which were outfitted with the equipment in June, Brooks added.

At the same time that package is being tested, Chili’s is experimenting with a “fully integrated technology system” that ties together front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house operations, he revealed. The system is in place at a single Chili’s unit and a lone outlet of a sister brand, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

“It’s really a holistic, integrated hospitality and technology pieceÉfrom front door to back, from server in a restaurant to ToGo cashier,” said Guy Constant, Brinker’s vice president of operations analysis.

Brooks described the technology initiatives as part of a larger effort to give guests more control over the pacing of their meal.

The strategic undertakings were aired during the executives’ quarterly conference call Tuesday with financial analysts. The call followed Brinker’s posting of a 49-percent decline in profit for the fourth quarter ended June 25.

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