The move is part of Checkers’ overall objective to remain “disruption ready,” a mindset the chain has exemplified multiple times throughout the pandemic.
For instance, when COVID arrived, the chain was already at a distinct advantage because of its decades of expertise with drive-thru, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t room to pivot. Adjusting to the rise of off-premises, Checkers ramped up third-party delivery partnerships, launched a fully integrated app and loyalty program that now has close to 1 million users, and dedicated one drive-thru lane to mobile ordering at two-thirds of company-run stores.
To improve throughput, Checkers is continuing the rollout of its state-of-the-art Fit Kitchen, another measure dedicated to making the lives of employees easier.
The new format eliminates about a mile and a half of unnecessary walking per hour collectively, replaces flattops with clamshell grills to boost quality and consistency, and features holding equipment that keeps products hotter for longer, fry stations and grill positions with better capacity, and removes final cooking processes from most fried products. The new format was installed at 80 company-run restaurants in 2021.
One of the first menu innovations enabled by the Fit Kitchen was Checkers’ fry-seasoned chicken tenders, which became one of the chain’s most successful product tests in the past decade. The item is slated for a February launch systemwide.
The Fit Kitchen is a hallmark of Checkers own “restaurant of the future” design, which aims to improve experiences at walk-up windows, patios, and drive-thrus. That means better lighting, QR codes, reimagined seating areas and bathrooms, and a modernized look and feel.
After revealing the prototype in January 2021, two stores in Florida have been remodeled with the upgraded assets.
“They're doing extraordinarily well,” Allen says. “Two restaurants does not make a test, so we really can't say how those sales are doing. But I have to bite my tongue because they are doing so well. We got to have critical mass and do another six remodels.”
The prototype, part of a five-year growth plan, was made possible by parent company Oak Hill Capital, which handed Checkers a $20 million capital injection to start 2021.
The brand has 88 approved locations in the pipeline, and signed 14 multi-unit development deals last year, including San Diego, Orange County, and other California markets; Texas; Arizona; Maryland; South Carolina; Georgia; and new state Rhode Island.
Checkers' goal is to increase unit count by 50 percent in the next five years, putting it close to 1,300. Sixty-two are expected to open in 2022. Agreements are largely with new multi-unit franchises, but there are a few existing operators who’ve signed deals.
Four company-run stores opened in 2021, so the brand is still developing its own fleet where possible, but a majority of future growth will be franchise-led. Seventy percent of the brand, or roughly 600 stores, are operated by franchisees.
Every restaurant built after November will feature the prototype design, and given the chain’s aggressive growth plans, Allen says the “restaurant of the future” will soon become the prevailing look of the brand.
“With 3x white space in our existing markets, we have ample opportunity to grow significantly over the next five years,” Allen says.
Thanks to an operating model fit for COVID times, Checkers’ revenue grew 3.8 percent in 2020 year-over-year, and eight percent in 2021. In an effort to make its franchise offering even more appealing, the brand is aiming to increase EBITDA by 50 percent to $60 million by 2025.