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Small plates = ops changes for Au Bon Pain

Early sales results from Au Bon Pain’s Portions menu rollout have the chain believing small tastes can make a big impact on sales.

Introduced systemwide in March, Portions are 14 grab-and-go, snack-sized items merchandised in refrigerated cases. The array includes hummus and cucumbers; cheddar, fruit and crackers; honey mustard chicken; and Thai peanut chicken. They cost $2.99 without a protein, $3.49 with, and each contains 200 calories or less. Since the launch, some units have sold as many as 200 a day when the company’s goal at the outset was 200 per week.

According to ABP regional executive chef Joe Kubik, the results are due in part to a detailed systematization process that started last fall with initial market tests. To work long-term in all 226 ABPs, Portions ingredients had to come mostly from current inventory and be produced fresh at the store.

“We had to figure out how to maximize efficiency, minimize additional workload and come up with best practices for other cafés,” Kubik says. Only two new components were added to inventories to create what originally was a 23-item Portions menu. “What also had to create access to all those ingredients in one general area in the walk-in and in dry storage, and then establish an order in which we would produce them all,” Kubik says.

In that first store, Kubik’s team dedicated one prep cook to Portions. To eliminate task duplication, they scanned the operation’s production for items other cooks could produce for Portions. “If one cook diced tomatoes, he was asked to do more for Portions. If another was slicing turkey, he did more for Portions.”

At the outset, Portions added five hours to the kitchen labor matrix, a number ABP expected but wanted to lower. The first reduction came when the menu was cut from 23 to 14 choices.

“We found that those 14 accounted for the vast majority of all Portions sales, so it was logical to trim it down,” says Ed Frechette, ABP partner and senior vice president of marketing. Focus group studies also helped shorten the list.

Since most ABPs open at 6 a.m., crews learned they needed at least five Portions strong sellers prepped and in the case for early bird customers. To speed next-day production for morning crews, later crews learned to prep some elements each evening.

According to Thomas John, ABP executive chef and senior vice president of food and beverage, who created Portions, once an item is assembled, it’s thrown out if not sold that day. Kubik says that resulted in some expected waste during the early phases of the trial, but as production was tuned, losses dropped.

“We didn’t want to run out of something just because it sold well one day and didn’t the next,” says Kubik. ABP knew guests wouldn’t buy the same Portions every day until they’d tried several and settled on their favorites. “So no matter what we were wasting, we wanted to get an accurate understanding of what was really selling. Our [waste charts] are good tools to track that.”

Satisfied with the acceptance of Portions at one café, ABP expanded the test to five stores. A wider two-region test came next, followed by even broader full-district tests. Kubik credits the team at the initial test store with ironing out most of the line’s kinks.

“When we showed the first store the 23-item menu, I think some of them were looking at me sideways thinking, ‘Oh my gosh!’” he says. “But when we explained what we were trying to accomplish and that we needed a place to work it through, they said they wanted to help.”

Kubik says that store’s manager became a Portions evangelist to other managers and that her crew’s proven example helped other crews believe in it. That Portions sold so well also helped make quick converts.

“Some area directors and GMs wanted to be next to test it,” Kubik says. “There was a little buzz created in the company.”

Kubik says if Portions were eliminated tomorrow, the studied exercise of adding such a large menu component to the system still was worthwhile. Crews learned to be better organized and accomplish more “with less effort, less time and not while not ruffling ruffle anyone’s feathers.” Today, total daily labor dedicated to Portions, he adds, is down to three hours.

Now it appears those crews soon will become victims of their own success as ABP has indicated that it will extend the line.

“Now we’re working on breakfast Portions,” Kubik says. The company recently announced dessert Portions are forthcoming as well. “Guests have shown us what they want, and we’re trying to give them more of it.”

TAGS: Operations
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