OAKVILLE Ontario Sweeping down from the North, a new competitor in the quickservice fray is counting on a space-efficient store footprint and a streamlined kitchen equipment package to recommend its brand of fresh teppanyaki-style Japanese food to potential franchisees and the American public.
Teriyaki Experience, based here, was founded in 1986. It has more than 130 units open in Canada, the Middle East, Italy and the Caribbean. Its first U.S. store opened in Atlanta last year, followed by three in California and single units in Iowa and New York. The franchising pace is brisk. “We have had over 230 commitments in the U.S. in a matter of 18 months,” said Tony Joseph, Atlanta-based director of operations – U.S. for Teriyaki Experience as well as the area developer for the state of Georgia.
According to Joseph, the single factor that most distinguishes Teriyaki Experience from the typical QSR is its practice of cooking with water rather than oil. A squirt or two of water from a squeeze bottle helps proteins and vegetables on a Japanese-style teppanyaki griddle sizzle up without adding fat and calories. “More and more people are leaning toward healthier eating,” said Joseph. “That’s our niche.”
The timing is fortunate. Three in four adults and about the same number of teenagers are trying to eat more healthfully in restaurants, according to National Restaurant Association research. In fact, “healthful alternatives” is the Number 2 trend in quickservice restaurants, according operators in that segment. Furthermore, in the association’s recent poll of chefs about food trends, 47 percent rated “Japanese cuisine other than sushi” as a hot trend.
Teriyaki Experience’s made-to-order meals consist of a choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu cooked up with fresh vegetables and served with a choice of steamed white or brown rice or noodles and the chain’s signature teriyaki sauce. They are flash cooked in two to three minutes on the griddle behind the service counter in view of the customer. A meal and a soft drink ranges from $7 to $8.50 per person.
The steel griddle, similar to the cooking apparatus built into the tables of some full-service Japanese restaurants, is where the action is. Electric powered and five- to eight-feet long, it has controllable temperature zones — high to quickly sear proteins and vegetables, lower to hold just-cooked items for a few moments without overcooking them.
In contrast to some Asian QSRs that serve batch-cooked food from steam table pans, the griddle is fast enough to essentially cook to order. “We do very little batch cooking,” said Joseph. When they see a line forming, cooks may start a few orders of popular items like chicken teriyaki in advance. By moving them to the less-hot zones of the griddle when they are done, such items can be held for a few moments until they are needed, helping the kitchen keep up with the rush.
For space efficiency as well as handy access, refrigerated drawers underneath the griddle hold prepped proteins, vegetables and noodles. Also in easy reach behind the cooks is a table with four automatic rice cookers that can each produce a 30-cup batch of steamed rice in 30 minutes. Also nearby are an electric countertop soup warmer and a microwave oven.
Given the simplicity of the system, previous restaurant experience, while helpful, is not required of franchise applicants. “We don’t have to hire $25-an-hour chefs to run the griddle,” said Joseph. “Obviously, there is a speed factor. But 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds learn how to do this.”
The concept fits into as little as 400 square feet in a shopping mall food court. A strip mall location might occupy less than 1,000 square feet, although 1,200 to 1,500 square feet is the usual range. The total estimated investment for a franchise ranges from $231,000 to $329,000, including a $25,000 franchise fee.
Teriyaki Experience works to lessen the cost of equipment for its franchisees. For example, the chain’s move to pre-sliced chicken and beef in recent years has allowed the removal of meat slicers from the kitchen, saving $4,000 to $5,000 on equipment, not to mention reducing kitchen labor. “You also save on real estate because you are taking up less kitchen space,” noted Joseph.
In another space- and cost-reduction move, Teriyaki Experience is moving from walk-in coolers and freezers to more compact three-door refrigerators and freezers, saving $1,000 on each piece. With stores taking smaller and more frequent food orders, less overall storage space is required. “We’re tweaking things all the time to make things better for the operator and give greater value to the customer,” said Joseph.