By Charlie Fletcher

There’s not a whole lot of cooking going on. That’s what sets Munchelino’s?a new concept that debuts in New York City in November?apart from other restaurants.

With its emphasis on variety, choice, and simplicity, the new chain hopes to cast itself as the epitome of the fast-casual concept. Yet what is most unique about Munchelino’s might not be its menu, but the company’s procurement system and the near complete lack of kitchens inside restaurants.

Not too many cooks: Munchelino?s eases costs by keeping the cooking off-site.

Omelets and pastas made to order at sauté stations with ingredients of the customer’s choice are only a few of the menu items offered. Gourmet pizzas, Asian noodles, exotic mashed potatoes, soups, salads, sandwiches, quiches, wraps, branded smoothies from Freshens Smoothie Company, and tantalizing desserts are others.

Munchelino’s could represent a whole new way of dealing with food vendors and distributors. ?What’s different about the concept is the variety of food and the quality of food,? says Henry Katz, vice president of culinary development for Casual Cafe Concepts, the New York?based company that owns the new chain. But for the franchisee, Katz says, the biggest difference is that there’s no kitchen. Everything is brought in either prepared or ready to heat.

It’s not the first time anyone has tried to run a restaurant without a kitchen, but it’s one of the first times anyone has attempted to offer a product line as varied and complex as Munchelino’s without cooking on the premises. Yet the lack of cooking equipment will be central to the success of the chain, says Bruce Major, the company’s president and chief development officer.

Cutting out cooking equipment and most food preparation reduces both labor and building expenses, creating low-cost entry opportunities for franchisees. ?The backbone of any franchise company is the franchisee; if you don’t support the franchisee, you don’t have a franchise,? says Major, himself a veteran of Bonanza Restaurants and Sandella’s Cafe.

Katz and Steve Tenedios, the chief executive officer of Casual Cafe, have worked together in the New York area for many years developing a variety of restaurants and catering systems to accommodate the diverse tastes of a city known for its discerning and demanding palate. ?Having owned restaurants and catering services throughout midtown Manhattan for more than twenty years, I have had an opportunity to observe trends first-hand,? Tenedios says, ?and it has become increasingly clear that affordable prices and fast service are no longer enough to entice sophisticated consumers. They want an attractive setting and a varied menu featuring appetizing foods made with the freshest and healthiest ingredients.?

Katz brings an impressive set of credentials to his position. The son of an Austrian baker, he attended konditori (confectionery) school in Switzerland at age ten and has a masters in chemistry. He is also the author of two cookbooks. Katz has worked as a nutritional researcher and menu consultant for some of the largest hospitality organizations in the world, including Sheraton Hotels, Lufthansa Airlines, and General Foods. One of his many contributions to the evolution of food involved sandwiches with eclectic ingredients?such as roasted vegetables, prosciutto, lemon zest, and whole-grain mustards?now familiar to most Americans.

To bring Tenedios’ vision of quick-service gourmet food together with Major’s vision of low-labor, no-cook restaurants, Katz has drawn on both his extensive culinary experience and his many contacts in the industry.

Working with a variety of vendors, Katz determines the quantities of ingredients to be shipped to each restaurant and how they should be packed and sent to the distributor?from pre-cooked chicken to frozen soups and sauces to precut produce. Of course, making all the logistics work is a technical challenge for Katz, but from the franchisee’s point of view it will be no different from any other restaurant.

?It’s probably more of a paradigm change for the distributors than it is for anyone else,? says Tenedios, ?because the vendors have been trying to talk to companies like ours for years.?

In the past, small chains were limited in what they could buy from distributors, says Katz, but that’s not the case today. Companies such as Kraft, Borden, Tyson, and Perdue are all actively assisting this fledgling chain with new products and custom training videos.

Those big companies now realize that to expand their business, they must develop a vendor-customer relationship, says Tenedios. ?All of these companies have huge research and development centers, and staff who help do training, which is very important going into a new concept,? he says. ?We basically have vendors tripping over themselves wanting to do business with us and wanting to give us their knowledge and cutting-edge technology.?

This article originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of QSR. All rights reserved.

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