Food lovers have found new playgrounds of the palate in the splashy multistation food halls popping up these days. However, the notion of a portfolio of restaurant-quality food stations under one roof has an antecedent in Foodlife, the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concept that opened in Chicago in 1993.
As industry veterans may recall, the brand-new Richard Melman-created “food forum” was a must stop for attendees of the National Restaurant Association Show that spring. Today, still evolving and wowing crowds, Foodlife draws as many as 8,000 guests on its busiest days to its 18,000-square-foot space in the upscale Water Tower Place shopping complex.
In the past two years, Lettuce has remodeled 10 of Foodlife’s 14 stations, with the rest to follow. The company has upgraded equipment and tweaked layouts to boost productivity, energy efficiency and merchandising. Perhaps the biggest impact of these moves has been greater visibility of fresh, scratch food preparation.
“When we remodeled each station, we made food the focus,” said Marc Jacobs, vice president and managing partner of Foodlife and three other Lettuce concepts. He has overseen Foodlife since 2007.
At the salad station, a 10-foot-long display cooler protected by a sneezeguard was installed up front to showcase the 50-odd fresh produce ingredients and garnishes that customers can choose to use in tossed-to-order creations.
“The cooler we selected really highlights the rainbow of fruits and vegetables and leafy greens that we have in season,” said Jacobs. “You don’t see pans, you just see food.”
The new salad station is a step up from the original salad station, which kept ingredients and salad making in the background, Jacobs said.
At the dessert station, a European-style gelato case raises pans of the frozen treat into better view “so it sells itself,” boosting sales significantly, said Jacobs. The Big Bowl station now shows off small batches of Thai Curry Chicken and other just-cooked Asian specialties in attractive wok pans set on steps in a custom steam table.
In addition, at the pizza station, a new conveyor oven is being installed that will cook faster and save energy. It will also enhance the ability to offer quick breakfast specialties in the morning, such as breakfast pizza, baked oatmeal and breakfast sandwiches.
Customers spend around $10 for an entrée and a beverage on average, an inexpensive restaurant meal on Chicago’s swank Magnificent Mile shopping strip.
“People want the restaurant quality, they want the chef name, they want the brand of Lettuce Entertain You, available at a value, whether it’s a great sandwich or an entrée,” said Jacobs.
As Foodlife’s convection ovens reach the end of their effective lives, Jacobs said that fast and versatile combi ovens he has been researching would likely replace them.
“In 2011, time is money,” said Jacobs. “If you can get quality product to a guest quicker, you are going to make more money.”