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Flex-casual format gains popularity

Restaurants offer counter service for lunch, full service for dinner

Flexible service formats, which have been around for years, are drawing new attention, as restaurant operators seek to offer their guests more convenience.

While fast casual, with its counter-ordering model, has gotten most of the attention in the past decade, such concepts as Russo’s New York Pizzeria, Mama Fu’s Asian and Wolfgang Puck Bistro have found that a “flex-casual” model works well for their customers.

The flex-casual model offers counter service by day and full service by night. Newer concepts, such as Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group’s SC Asian at the Macy’s store in San Francisco, adapts a bit of flex casual as well.

Wolfgang Puck Bistro at Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles debuted a flex-casual format in April 2009.

“This setting provides a fast lunch for the business diner who doesn’t have time to wait, and at the same time allows for a more formal, destination location for diners who want to come for a nice dinner or special occasion,” said Alyssa Gioscia Roberts, operations coordinator for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc.

Randy Murphy, whose Murphy Restaurant Group of Austin, Texas, acquired the Mama Fu’s concept in March 2008, added that the flex-casual model works for his restaurant. As a franchisee of Mama Fu’s before the acquisition, he said he could never get comfortable with relying mostly on lunch for revenue.

So his Austin Mama Fu’s restaurant began offering counter service during the day and full service at night. The switchover from fast casual between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. is fairly seamless, Murphy said, as long as you have a host or server watching the front to capture the customers as they come in.

The flex-casual format has also shifted more dollars to the dinner daypart, Murphy added.

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More than 40 percent of Mama Fu’s volume is in off-premise sales, such as take-out, delivery and catering, he said. Of the 60 percent of dine-in, 35 percent of that is in the evening and 25 percent is during the day.

The shift in volumes has allowed Mama Fu’s to reduce the size of units for future franchising.

“We’ve actually shrunk our footprint in future units,” Murphy said, reducing it from an average of 3,000 square feet to a minimum of 2,500 square feet. Seating was reduced minimally, he said, from about 86 seats to 75.

“Americans want flexibility today. People don’t go to fast casual as much at night,” Murphy said. “And also, with servers there in the evening, you have the opportunity to upsell.”

There was one lesson learned, and The Murphy Restaurant Group tweaked the model a bit, making the flex-casual format just for weekdays.

“We were confusing people on weekends,” said Murphy, whose Mama Fu’s concept has 13 units in four states.

Anthony Russo, owner of the 28-unit Russo’s New York Pizzeria and the Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen concepts of Houston, has offered the flex-casual model since he opened his first pizzeria in 1992.

“I did it for the simplicity,” Russo said. “I came from a full-service restaurant background, but I wanted good pasta and pizza without all the labor expenses. With no wait staff for lunch, you avoid a lot of delays. Guests can get in and out in 30 minutes.”

Russo’s New York Pizzeria, which now has units in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, offers fast-casual service from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and full service from 5 p.m. until closing, Russo said.

Table service at dinner helped increase adult beverage sales, he said, and lunch check averages of about $12 are eclipsed by dinner averages of between $22 and $23.

“Franchisees want something simple and with great opportunities,” Russo said. “This provides convenience for lunch and is streamlined. At dinnertime, it’s more profitable.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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