Eric Wolfe isn’t afraid to go small.

As the CEO of the Erbert & Gerbert’s sandwich chain, Wolfe oversees nearly 100 units. The typical Ebert & Gerbert’s store, Wolfe says, runs about 1,400 square feet, but on a few occasions, Wolfe and his team have ventured out from convention, pursuing smaller footprints and fitting their concept into spaces about two-thirds the size of the typical unit—and doing so without a hiccup to sales performance.

“It’s all about location,” Wolfe says. “We’ll take the 1,400-square-foot space all day long, but there’s a lot of competition for those bigger spaces. If we can find an A-plus location, then we’re going to investigate it regardless of the size.”

For instance, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Erbert & Gerbert’s hometown, Wolfe’s team oversees a 900-square-foot drive-thru location on Clairemont Avenue, one of the college town’s busiest thoroughfares. In Bloomington, Minnesota, a community of some 87,000 where real estate is at a premium, another Erbert & Gerbert’s shop pleases diners from a 900-square-foot storefront.

Quite often, small is the enemy of the restaurateur, delivering a range of challenges, from kitchen operations and guest seating to storage and customer service. For restaurants able to address those challenges with some creative problem solving, however, the results can be compelling.

“A lot can happen in a small space when you go at it with surgical precision,” says Howland Blackiston, principal with Connecticut-based King-Casey, one of the industry’s top retail consulting and design firms.

Blackiston points to Starbucks’ new modular drive-thru platform, which features 450-square-foot units constructed from shipping containers. “Can you imagine the revenue and cost savings there?” he asks.

Small doesn’t have to be the enemy, Blackiston adds. In fact, quick serves can churn out big results from a smaller footprint. Here’s how some are accomplishing just that.

Scale back the menu

In September, Texas-based Fireside Pies opened its fifth location, a 300-square-foot space in Dallas’ new Uptown Urban Market food hall.

A far cry from Fireside Pies’ first four units, which range from 1,700 to 4,000 square feet, Fireside Pies accommodated the drastic size difference by scaling back its menu, serving 9-inch pizzas instead of 12-inch pies, offering 10 pizzas rather than 13 and two salads as opposed to five, and reducing appetizer offerings from seven to three. With 15 percent fewer SKUs, Fireside Pies was able to shrink the size of its prep area and also reduce storage space.

Make storage part of the decor

Ryan Smolkin, founder of Smoke’s Poutinerie, a Canada-based enterprise with upward of 50 U.S. stores in operation or development, readily acknowledges he runs a “weird, wild, and wacky brand,” a reality that lends itself to some creative design choices. In some of his smaller units—400–500-square-foot locations—Smolkin’s team piles 50-pound bags of potatoes in the dining room to function as a wall or even furniture, while they also stack canned red peppers high and tall to serve as decorative art.

“This started out as necessity because we didn’t have the backroom storage, but has come to be a part of our décor and brand,” Smolkin says.

Carve up the space

Blackiston urges quick serves to slice up smaller spaces into different zones, each one possessing its own strategy and message. In a mall food-court setting, for instance, there is the approach zone, the line-up zone, the order zone, the pay zone, and the food pick-up zone. In each zone, he says, brands must consider the customer experience and the precise business objectives.

“Put on your customer hat and look at how the customer uses the space, then develop strategies for each step in the path to purchase,” he says.

For example, Blackiston adds, optimize information on menuboards in a way that represents how most customers order. Place beverage selections next to entrées or present bundled packages to spur higher tickets. If quick serves approach each individual zone with a strategic mindset, he says, they can build traffic, drive sales, speed throughput, please customers, and increase loyalty.

Size down the lobby

Whereas customers at Erbert & Gerbert’s more conventional units might have 25 feet until they reach the counter, visitors to the chain’s 900-square-foot Clairemont Avenue location might have less than 10 feet. Though a noticeable difference for some customers, the scaled-down lobby fits the more grab-and-go culture of that particular Erbert & Gerbert’s unit, one connected to a convenience store.

“When you’re dealing with a smaller space, you absolutely have to be more efficient with your use of the real estate,” Wolfe says.

Buy efficient equipment

With a smaller space, it’s crucial operators look more keenly at back-of-the-house operations and, in particular, investigate kitchen technology capable of boosting speed, accuracy, or consistency of product.

In moving to its new food-hall space, Fireside Pies traded its traditional round oven for a square model that offers more cooking space, a savvy move to increase the number of pizzas it could cook at any given time.

While testing equipment for its new drive-thru prototype, Johnny Rockets realized it needed to expand beyond its traditional cooking platforms and leverage faster-cooking kitchen equipment. By incorporating a Taylor clamshell grill, Johnny Rockets reduced the cooking time of each burger by one minute, which brought cooked-to-order ticket times to about three minutes.

“Investing in efficient kitchen equipment technology is key to ensure that you are not sacrificing the quality of your food while working to increase efficiencies in smaller spaces,” says Dominic Talavera, vice president of development for the 362-unit Johnny Rockets chain. 

Increase supply deliveries

Blessed with a strong relationship with its distributor, GFS Canada, Smoke’s Poutinerie arranged for an added delivery day to many of its smaller units. By scheduling three deliveries each week instead of one or two, Smolkin says, the company can help its smaller stores minimize how much excess goods clutter already-tight quarters.

Use the outdoors

Earlier this year, the nearly-850-unit Checkers/Rally’s system launched three new building designs it called “Checkers and Rally’s 4.0.” All three new designs, engineered to offer franchisees added variety, are smaller than the brand’s historical modular double-drive-thru unit by about 200 square feet.

Checkers/Rally’s accomplished that, in part, by leveraging the outdoors. Chief development officer Jennifer Durham says the company handpicked a walk-in cooler/freezer rated for outdoor use and one that could be easily added onto the building upon construction.

Think like IKEA

The Swedish furniture retailer IKEA is known for packing a lot into small spaces, and that’s a mindset restaurant operators must adopt in smaller-footprint stores.

At many of Smoke’s Poutinerie units, kitchen tools dangle from ceilings or hang from walls, while numerous areas serve multiple purposes, such as a triple sink doing double duty as a workstation and cutting area for prep.

“You need to use every inch at your disposal,” Smolkin says, “and everything can be used as anything.”

Honor thy location

Deep in the bowels of the downtown Houston tunnel system sits a 750-square-foot Salata unit. The nearly-10-year-old shop is a far cry from the typical 2,600-square-foot restaurant in the 54-unit Salata chain but perfectly reflects its location in the bustling Pennzoil Place, which consists of a pair of matching 36-story office towers.

While the menu and equipment are the same as any other Salata unit, the Pennzoil Place spot features only to-go offerings, eliminating the dining room and restrooms. The smaller location is also only open for lunch five days a week to accommodate the urban office crowd.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” Salata founder and president Berge Simonian says.

Focus the menu

With units that are roughly 650 square feet, Salad and Go, an Arizona-based drive-thru salad chain, doesn’t try to be all things to all people. Rather, the chain focuses on salads—and salads alone. This means fewer ingredients on site, which eases storage needs, streamlines operations, and, in another benefit, offers the upstart chain greater buying power with its partners.

Catch customers’ attention

In smaller spaces, brands rarely have the luxury of oversized exterior signage. As such, concepts often need to rethink their standard messaging to ensure signage is legible and visually attractive as a customer scans the horizon.

Thereafter, King-Casey’s Blackiston says, restaurants should consider how else they can attract the customer’s attention, such as a staff member handing out product samples in front of the store or supplying whiffs of freshly baked product.

Get the right team in place

Efficient staff are important in any quick-service environment, but doubly so in smaller footprints when team members need to be ultra-efficient multitaskers. The smaller the store, the more it needs skilled and seasoned employees who understand the operation.

“You need to have your aces in places,” Erbert & Gerbert’s Wolfe says.

Capitalize on down time

By studying the ebbs and flows of its business day, Smoke’s can do full prep in the morning and then use late afternoon hours—typically a slow time—to blanch potatoes and make gravies for the evening rush. Often in afternoons, for instance, Smoke’s staff use three fryers to blanch potatoes, with a fourth fryer devoted to serving customers.

“If you know your busy times and schedule appropriately, you can adjust your operations to accomplish despite any space constraints,” Smolkin says.

Install savvy seating

When front-of-the-house space is limited, Johnny Rockets has responded with a strategic array of different seating options—counter, booths, and even community tables—to increase capacity.

Some shrewd seating choices are also present at Erbert & Gerbert’s, which replaces the traditional tables-and-chairs arrangement with bar-height chairs at the windows and adds al fresco dining.

Leverage a sister store

Staff at Salata’s Pennzoil Place unit work closely with a nearby Salata location to complete each day’s food prep. This strategic relationship eases storage and equipment burdens at the 750-square-foot unit, while additional off-site storage further compensates for the smaller footprint.

Develop a clear approach to messaging

Quite often, Blackiston encounters messaging in restaurants that serves no purpose, such as signs at the register promoting online ordering. In a smaller footprint, that error becomes magnified.

“Deliver the right message by relocating or eliminating anything that doesn’t add focus to what’s important in each particular zone,” Blackiston says. “You don’t have much space. Make it count.”

Think mobile

When customers flood Smoke’s smaller units, team members respond by rolling out a portable POS unit and setting it up adjacent to the fixed POS unit to accelerate the line’s movement. Compared to a second permanent POS, it’s a far more economical option in terms of space, Smolkin says.

Design, Fast Casual, Story, Checkers/Rally's, Erbert & Gerbert's, Fireside Pies, Johnny Rockets, Salad and Go, Salata, Smoke's Poutinerie