NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (FNS) -- As John Glenn was preparing for his second trip into outer space recently, Autobistro was settling into its own daring adventure with its utilitarian legs firmly planted on the ground here, just outside trendy Los Angeles.
According to the owners, it's all systems go: Autobistro, dubbed "the third generation of fast food," has expanded beyond its lunch-only menu into other dayparts, such as breakfast and dinner.
Jonathan Rodriguez-Atkatz, president and chief executive officer, said that business has been "very good" since the late July opening, though it seems local patrons need some time to get used to the idea.
"You never know what to expect, it's such a different concept. It's so radical," he observed.
One look at the restaurant is all it takes to understand Atkatz' comment. Autobistro resembles a space pod, and is a testament that we are, indeed, in the space age. The kitchen is housed in a long, 1,400-square-foot, Newport blue structure that stands 12 feet above the ground and is supported by a giant angled truss spanning the width of the Autobistro site, as well as by three stainless-steel silos that also serve as mechanical food-delivery systems. The site is landscaped with gardens containing aromatic plants and vegetation. At night, it has sensual up-lighting and glittering fiber-optic lights.
Furthermore, the company, which is based in Seattle, is serving restaurant-quality food in a drive-through, quick-service format. It was conceived and developed by Atkatz, a former deputy general counsel for Sea-Land Service Inc.; and two co-founders, Gordon Bowker, a founder of both Starbucks and Redhook Ale Brewery; and Mark McNeely, former chairman of Cole & Weber, the Northwest advertising subsidiary of Ogilvy & Mather.
As customers drive onto the Autobistro site, they take an in-car menu from a kiosk, then pull forward and place their orders with a ground-based Autobistro "no-waitperson" who transmits the order to the kitchen. The customer pays the cashier, then pulls forward to one of the three stainless steel-clad silos under the building to pick up his order.
The delivery system is mechanized and works like an "intelligent dumbwaiter," Atkatz said. The customer simply takes his order from a shelf in the elevator silo and drives off.
Atkatz declined to discuss the kitchen operation, explaining that it is proprietary information. "We have components that are assembled in a way that's not done in the industry today," he said with an air of mystery. "We're pretty much revolutionizing not just the consumer end but also the operational end."
But food items are not prepackaged ahead of time. "Items are freshly made to order," he said. For example, salads are freshly tossed.
In reality, the meals are at different stages of completion when they arrive at Autobistro's kitchen, in much the same way a restaurant might have its sauces prepared ahead of time. Food is freshly assembled on site, however, whether from scratch or from components delivered from a central commissary in Orange County.
Portions of meals are ready to mix or heat, box and serve "so that the customer gets a real fresh product," Atkatz said, adding that the meals are sold as a single entity, in one package.
The menu includes a lot of 1990s-style, multicultural favorites, such as the Zorba the Caesar with Grilled Chicken salad -- Caesar salad served with feta cheese and olives; Sesame Peanut Noodles with Chicken, which is mixed with Thai salad greens; and Turkey Pot Pie, which is served with a French puff pastry.
Autobistro has two sandwiches served on focaccia bread and two on rustic rolls. Kids' meals are macaroni and cheese and cheese pizza -- no hamburgers. The menu makes special note of the eatery's healthful food-preparation practices, telling customers that the signature Bistro potato chips are reduced fat and flavored with sea salt and malt vinegar.
Autobistro also serves desserts, including an Apricot Panetone, and latte and espresso, several hot teas, all-fruit smoothies and other specialty drinks, as well as soft drinks and sparkling water.
The kitchen has several cooks, but no chef, said Atkatz.
While many of the menu ideas come directly from him, Autobistro does get advice from chefs, including Kathy Casey, described in Food and Wine magazine as one of the "25 hot new American chefs." Casey, of Kazzy & Associates, Seattle, was a driving force in Autobistro's menu design.
"All the [food] design is done ahead of time," said Atkatz, adding that there's no time for that in the kitchen because the food has to be prepared so quickly.
He said that Autobistro is just beginning to explore the meal-solutions arena. "We're trying to develop components of the menu that are car-friendly foods, and others that people can take [home] with them," he said. "We're starting to explore more in depth the take-home meals, and then our menu will blossom and evolve."
The menu has already evolved in more traditional respects. Autobistro added breakfast items in the fall. Dubbed "one-hand breakfasts," they fit Atkatz' definition of car-friendly, since they are easily consumed with minimal mess. The items include country-style sausage with eggs and cheese and grilled vegetables, served in a pie shell. Autobistro also recently added dinner, which includes the luncheon items, as well as specialty fare like Seafood Newburg Pot Pie and Beef Bourguignon.
Atkatz said that the menu also changes with seasonal foods, and, as the company eventually opens new restaurants in other regions, which is its intent, the menu will further add regional favorites. The company already plans to open four more restaurants in Orange County by 2000.
Perhaps because it was the first menu, lunch is the most popular drive-through time, Atkatz said. "Dinner is the slowest, but it's the newest and we're developing that menu. Breakfast is steady. We have great coffee and pastries and handheld breakfast quiches," he said.
A high percentage of Autobistro's customers are women, Atkatz said, and many are repeat customers. "It's an educated consumer base and largely between 30 and 55 [years] in age," he said. The target customer is someone who's crunched for time but who has discerning tastes in food. So far, marketing has been low key and dependent on word of mouth.
Because the food is of a higher caliber than found in the typical fast-food place, price points reflect items more likely to be found on the menu in a casual sit-down concept. For example, the handheld breakfasts in the pie shells are $2.69, and the Zorba the Caesar salad is $7.95. The sandwiches, served with Bistro chips, pasta or potato salad, are $5.95, except for the roasted turkey sandwich, which is 50 cents more. "People seem very happy with our value equation," Atkatz said. "Our salads are phenomenal."