NEW ORLEANS (FNS) -- A restaurant attitude has enabled Foodies Kitchen here to bring a healthy portion of success to the table as the operation approaches its second anniversary.
The restaurant strategy is easy to trace at Foodies Kitchen. It's owned and operated by Ti Adelaide Martin, daughter of Ella Brennan, matriarch of New Orleans' first family of food and co-owner of the city's venerable Commander's Palace. The 8,300-square-foot unit has been in operation more than a year, serving prepared foods, baked goods, cheeses and wines that can be eaten within two seating areas or packaged for home or office consumption.
The owners of this single-unit, restaurant/takeout hybrid recently implemented a triple crown of changes that helped streamline operations while reducing labor and food costs. For starters, they consolidated the unit's hot food, salad and sandwich areas into a newly created Express Counter department.
The operator also found efficiencies by trimming the ordering and checkout system for customers by staffing the front line with order-takers, rather than chefs. Finally, they dedicated a checkout to the Express Counter to further accelerate the entire unit's traffic flow.
"The changes we made were over the issue of labor," said Martin. "In the restaurant, for example, we have 500 salads prepared by one person. The system is efficient. We simply brought restaurant economics into the retail food store. The way we are set up now we are able to do more business, quickly."
It used to be that a customer ordered directly with the chef. This old system, while giving customers an instant connection with their food preparer, took production away from the stove. Chefs spent more time talking with customers rather than preparing their food. In an effort to correct the imbalance, Martin closely evaluated the issues of labor and efficiency.
At the same time, Martin said she didn't want to hide the chefs from consumers -- after all, they were a big part of the draw. Compromise was discovered through design: The kitchen was reconfigured with a pass-through counter, much like those found in a restaurant. Here, the counter is positioned between the staff walkway behind the express ordering counter and refrigerated display case, and the kitchen. Customers can view food preparation in progress through the opening.
"The chefs are visible, plus we have better controls over food costs," said Martin, referring to another benefit brought about by the changes -- without chefs directly serving customers, they can better monitor portion control.
"When you're waiting on someone and then preparing their meal, you develop a relationship with them. You want to please them and make sure they are happy with their food," said Martin. "If you give them a few more shrimp to make sure they are happy, it seems alright. Separating the order taking and the food preparation functions helps us control food costs."
Another restaurant strength Martin has been able to employ in the retail environment is menu writing and presentation. Foodies Kitchen has a printed menu for customers to take with them; and in the store, the menu is reproduced on boards mounted on the wall above the kitchen at the Express Counter. Simply listing offerings is prohibited at Foodies Kitchen. Instead, lavish descriptions are used to sell the food. Daily specials are listed on a separate chalkboard in the center, and when they run out they're erased with flair.
"In a restaurant, you know how to sell food using words, without customers seeing it," said Martin. During SN's visit, one such dish -- "Salmon Cheesecake To Die For" -- was erased to a chorus of disappointed voices.
In addition to the Express Counter, Foodies Kitchen also offers up cold foods from a service case. While some of the offerings provide an exotic ethnic flair, most are old-fashioned New Orleans comfort foods like macaroni and cheese and Creole potato salad. Here again, Martin brings restaurant expertise to the table, pricing items by the serving, as on a restaurant menu.
Across the sales floor from the cold service case, and adjacent to a made-to-order salad area, Foodies offers customers fresh produce to complement their meal. Traditional and specialty items are positioned in baskets on racks. The produce area is kept slightly cooler than the rest of the unit with the help of blowers and a curtain, which is drawn at night, a setup that allows Martin to use this area as a produce cooler for the prepared food departments.
"If a cook needs a produce item for an ingredient or a garnish, this is their produce cooler," she noted. "If a customer wants to take advantage of having a fresh piece of fruit with their meal, or take home some delicious item they ate at Foodies Kitchen, they too can go to the produce cooler."
Other self-service cases throughout the store are crowded with cheeses (located within the wine department), a multi-deck of sweets and treats (with beverages in the well), and an 8-foot walk-around pre-packaged merchandiser brimming with main dishes and sides. Some of these items, along with those in the service areas, are Commander's Palace signature offerings such as turtle soup, or white chocolate bread pudding, a signature item prepared by Martin's brother at his restaurant, Commander's Kitchen.
Rounding out Foodies Kitchen is a service pastry case and service bread bakery.
"I think we have run out of space for every department," said Martin. She believes that there is too much space devoted to prepared foods and intends to expand the unit's beverage offerings. Additionally, she will introduce a Goodie Bar with complimentary homemade condiments such as infused olive oils, balsamic vinegar, ketchup, Worcestershire and New Orleans-flavored hot sauce, and Creole chow chow.
No plans are in the works to duplicate Foodies Kitchen in the New Orleans area or elsewhere -- at least not yet. "I want to get my arms around this one first before considering expansion," said Martin, who predicts that the country will see more of these types of stores.
"What's interesting is that, between the restaurant and Foodies, I see the same customers," she said.