In 2012, burger concept Johnny Rockets introduced a new design prototype featuring modern elements like pop art décor and recessed lighting. The changes were met with fanfare, but as president of operations and development James Walker points out, few customers were aware of the back-of-house upgrades.

Johnny Rockets invested in three major new kitchen appliances: a clamshell grill, a vertical conveyer toaster, and a new system for making milkshakes. While guests rarely see them, those appliances make a big difference in the Johnny Rockets experience, Walker says.

Whether a brand brings customers old-fashioned juicy burgers, pizza with perfectly melted cheese, or fresh sandwiches with meats roasted in-house, operators need the right appliances to make those products a reality. And while the types of appliances needed vary from concept to concept, experts say there are some general guidelines and tricks for acquiring the best equipment.

Cory Damm, vice president of client services and general manager of the food and beverage market group at LeaseQ, a marketplace for equipment financing, says the four most important pieces of equipment for quick serves and fast casuals are heating elements (usually an oven), cooling elements (usually a refrigerator), the make line, and dish washers. While not technically an appliance, make lines are essential and usually quite expensive because they are typically built to certain specifications for each concept, he says.

For a full equipment package, new restaurant operators can expect to pay an average of $200,000–$400,000, Damm says. A kiosk may run about $50,000, while a full standalone burger restaurant could be as much as $500,000. Within those numbers, the costs for individual appliances can vary widely, from a few thousand dollars to $100,000.

The numbers are big, but Damm says operators shouldn’t think twice about making the necessary investment. He shares the story of a restaurateur who opted to save some cash on a smaller fryer, and then, when he was able to upgrade, had to rehab 60 percent of his kitchen to fit the right-sized fryer in. “Don’t let your cash constraints limit you from success,” Damm says. “Ask yourself: What do I need to get the job done the right way and plan for success, not mediocrity?”

Capriotti’s, a Las Vegas–based sandwich quick serve, did just that. Almost all food served at Capriotti’s is made in-house, with the exception of the bread, which is delivered fresh daily. That meant that the team had to find an oven that could slow-roast turkeys and other whole meats daily, as well as bake perfect cookies, tender meatballs, and more.

“We worked backward from the job we were trying to do. Once we figured out what the need was, we found a vendor,” says Ashley Morris, Capriotti’s CEO. After testing several ovens, Capriotti’s went with an oven that cost roughly $11,000. Because all Capriotti’s franchisees use it, the company is able to buy the ovens in bulk and save money.

Texas-based Pie Five also requires all franchisees use the brand’s customized TurboChef ovens to guarantee consistency across its growing system. Before launching in 2011, Pie Five CEO Randy Gier and his team worked closely with TurboChef to develop the perfect oven. Workers can individually control the top heat, bottom heat, direction and amount of airflow, and belt speed. The oven doesn’t require a hood, so it can be used in a variety of locations and lowers the cost in building vents. It can also consistently make multiple types of crusts, desserts ranging from pies to brownies, breadsticks, cinnamon rolls, and more, Gier says.

Finding vendor partners who will work with operators to meet the restaurant’s needs is key, Gier says. “Always look for technology that can push you ahead of your competition, that can give your customers something to get excited about,” he says.

Improvement through technology was behind the Johnny Rockets appliance decisions. “The purpose of all of them is improved efficiency, decreased service time, and improved quality and consistency,” Walker says. The clamshell grill enabled the cook time for Johnny Rockets’ core product—the hamburger—to drop from four and a half minutes to one minute.

Investing in the right appliances can help set restaurants up for success, but Damm says managing cash flow and becoming profitable as quickly as possible are also important. Successful operators try to minimize the number of obstacles they have to overcome to make their stores profitable in the beginning.

There are several ways to pay for essential pieces of equipment, including personal capital, bank loans, and financing. Woops!, a New York City–based bakery specializing in macarons, elected to use equipment financing through LeaseQ to expedite growth, says Ben Woodruff, vice president of franchise development at Woops!

Though the appliances for the Woops! kiosks are fairly minimal—a refrigeration unit and point-of-sale system are primary—financing enables more franchisees to open kiosks and keep money on hand for any situations that arise, Woodruff says. When looking for a financer, he says, thoroughness and efficient turnaround times are key factors.

However they’re paid for, restaurant operators want to make sure their appliances last. Johnny Rockets’ Walker estimates that new equipment should have a minimum 10-year life span, with limited repair and maintenance issues.

Back of House, Finance, Restaurant Operations, Story, Capriotti's, Johnny Rockets, Pie Five Pizza