Captain D's Gets on Board with Express Restaurant Model

    The new restaurant is less than half the size of traditional units. 

    A rendering of Captain D's new 'Express' Prototype.
    Captain D's
    The first express prototype will open in Columbus, Ohio.

    Captain D’s is set to unveil a new express prototype later this year as it opens 14 locations throughout the country.

    Three restaurants will showcase the significantly smaller design, which features drive-thru and walk-up windows, but no dining room. The first two will have a single drive-thru, while a third unit in St. Louis will look to create more sales volume with two lanes.

    Brad Reed, Captain D’s chief development officer, says the brand has been developing the express prototype for several years, even before the pandemic forced restaurants to reconsider layouts to meet the changing needs of customers.

    “We needed a prototype that served a specific community and demographic,” he says.

    One of the main goals was to fit the 540-unit Captain D’s into metropolitan areas where space comes at a premium. The new prototype, set to debut in Columbus, Ohio, comes in at 970 square feet and three tenths of an acre, compared to the typical 2,000-square-feet model, which seats 44 in the dining room and requires three quarters of an acre.

    “We needed a solution of how to get into these [metropolitan] markets with a smaller piece of property, with a smaller prototype that would fit in there with a menu, and a kitchen designed for speed and getting more cars through the drive-thru,” Reed says. “One that would not prohibit us from a volume standpoint.

    A smaller footprint also means a streamlined workforce; usually 40–45 people are hired at traditional units, but with the prototype, only 20–25 staff members are needed.

    The menu will be slimmer, as well, to facilitate speed with drive-thru and pickup orders. Reed says there will be fewer proteins and sides, but the menu will still reflect Captain D’s core offerings—batter-dipped fish, chicken, catfish, and shrimp.

    “We’ve really done a lot of research on what is selling, and this helps us from a speed standpoint, as well,” Reed says. “It also takes out some of the complexity in the kitchen and will help with the throughput in the drive-thru to speed things up.”

    Compared to the 44-seater, the express prototype—which comes with fewer pieces of kitchen equipment and smaller plots of land—will save operators "hundreds of thousands" in construction costs, Reed says.

    “The savings are pretty dramatic,” he says. “We’re really excited about seeing where it lands and what the buildout ends up being when it’s all said and done.”

    The prototype will come with a newly planned kitchen, including electric fryers, which Reed says the company has been testing for several years. In addition, refrigeration drawers under food stations will replace bulky, standalone fridges and coolers. The menuboard will remain static, rather than a digital display.

    “It’s made us more efficient,” says Reed, describing the reimagined kitchen space. “That allowed us to shrink the size of the building and allowed us to reduce the number of people it takes to operate one of these restaurants. And the electric fryer allowed us to reduce our cook times on all of our products, which lends itself to speeding up the throughput in the drive-thru.”

    “Once these things open, we may need to make a few tweaks and some minor alterations to the prototype to make it even more efficient,” he continues.

    Reed expects the new design to spur interest among new and existing franchisees because the lower costs and appealing ROI make partnerships more approachable. Also, both Captain D’s and operators recognize the acceleration of off-premises. Digital orders placed through an app or website increased by 13 percent last year, on top of a 100 percent rise in 2020, according to The NPD Group.

    Captain D’s plans to build the prototype in existing markets. Reed says this is because the restaurant isn’t looking to necessarily develop a new customer base, but rather make it easier for core guests to get their favorite meals. Columbus, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Birmingham are all potential markets.

    “I’m really not trying to take this into new markets,” he says. “And I’m not saying that I won’t, but for this initial launch, those cities are great spots for us to go in to. There are some great backfill pocket opportunities that I think we could go in and do really well with.”

    Captain D’s signed 16 new agreements in 2021 to develop 40 locations over the next several years. Along with its prototype, the brand is focusing on converting vacant restaurant properties into profitable locations. After a recent franchise opening in Elberton, Georgia, that utilized the second-generation approach, the chain has two more scheduled in Florida this summer.

    Looking ahead, Captain D’s is directing efforts toward corporate and franchise development in the South, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, including Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

    The brand will continue to build traditional 44-seat units, but Reed says growth is trending toward smaller footprints, which is why he feels the express prototype will play a considerable role moving forward.

    “There are a lot of huge advantages,” he says of the express design. “I do think this will be a big part of our future. I feel very confident that this will play a big part for us.”