Earlier this year, Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken unveiled a rebranding that’s been in the works for about a year and a half. Last month, the 55-year-old chain introduced a new restaurant prototype to complement that new look. According to CEO Ryan Weaver, who joined the brand in June 2021, it was past time for such updates.
“We’re a heritage brand with a best-in-class product, but it hadn’t been looked at with a fresh set of eyes. Nothing had been modernized in a very long time – at least 20-plus years,” he said during a recent interview.
So, Lee’s hired a firm to do a holistic refresh and the prototype became part of that effort. The restaurant, which will initially launch next year at some company-owned restaurants, includes a dual drive-thru, online ordering pickup area, and an updated, more efficient back-of-house design. The standard restaurant is about 2,400 square feet with about 56 seats, but the design is flexible on seating and drive-thrus to meet specific market needs. Although Lee’s off-premises business, including the drive-thru, has grown from 60-to-70% pre-Covid to 70-to-80% now, there remain several rural locations that generate a heavy dine-in crowd.
“I think of this design as going the whole nine years. For our business, like most others in the QSR space, we were huge beneficiaries of what happened with Covid. This thing has to be optimized for the drive-thru, but also focus on dedicated areas for online ordering and third-party delivery pickup,” Weaver said. “It is also adequate, in our opinion, for what you need to support our dine-in business today.”
The new design elements can be retrofitted into existing restaurants, while a front porch area can be added to flex seating options. But it’s the back of house that has garnered the most focus, Weaver said. Lee’s brought in an industrial engineering consultant to analyze employees’ actions in order to maximize efficiency in the kitchen.
“They went into existing restaurants and spent multiple days there as a fly on the wall, observing what people were doing, counting their steps, their estimated down time. There was a level of detail that went into designing the back of house, minimizing steps, little things,” Weaver said.
This process was largely about improving functionality, though some tech and equipment features have also been added. The equipment side includes new holding cabinets. On the tech side, Lee’s is developing a “push system” that will help streamline the fry line so employees know exactly when to drive which products based on the order cadence.
Lee’s is also using artificial intelligence to take orders at the drive-thru, using a system from Hi Auto. Weaver said the company was Hi Auto’s first pilot about three years ago and the collaboration has been a success.
“It’s something to make our operations more efficient,” he said. “We get a ton of benefits from labor savings – about 5-to-6 authorized hours per day.”
He adds that the system has also improved consistency and upselling conversions.
Since the prototype was just introduced, Lee’s hasn’t yet solidified franchisee incentives or derived a return on investment. That’s why the company is starting with corporate-owned stores, which didn’t exist prior to Weaver’s tenure, when the company was 100% franchised. His first priority was to acquire a handful of restaurants so the company could test things like systems, procedures and design elements. That move, he believes, will pay off with this prototype.
“How are we going to run a business if we don’t know what’s going on? Priority number one was getting a solid base of corporate stores … Trying to lead and be in front instead of telling franchisees just to go spend money,” he said.
That said, he’s optimistic about the refresh and prototype, noting that such initiatives tend generate a double-digit topline tailwind. Weaver also believes the modernization will better support Lee’s development goals – about 250 units open or signed within five years and over 750 units in the longer term.
“Philosophically, we’re going slower today to go faster later, so we’re making sure the toolbox is built and ready to go,” he said.
Lee’s Famous Recipe currently has more than 130 locations in 12 U.S. states and Canada. Parent Famous Recipe Group LLC sold in 2021 to a subsidiary of Artemis Lane Partners.
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]