American Grill Stylish Display

At the new American Grill & Bar restaurant in Phoenix, opened last summer by Big 4 Restaurants, Inc., two separate exhibition cooking areas have been integrated into the 170-seat dining and drinking areas of the facility, supported by a third area for preparation, storage, and dishwashing. All three kitchens have been designed for maximum flexibility and efficiency in menu concept and execution, utilizing component rather than custommade equipment for a relatively low front-end investment. This design format, in addition to dramatically increasing the American Grill’s marketability, has enabled its creators to develop the actual menu as the project advanced.

Observes Mike Lopercio, director of food operations for Big 4: “A problem encountered in designing menus today is the high degree of customer fatigue. The more you can change and evolve a menu, the better competitive edge you have.’

Accordingly, the initial concept was painted in broad brushstrokes by Big 4 president and co-founder Lee Cohn: a menu celebrating American food and cooking techniques within the framework of a clubby yet elegant “man’s grill’ atmosphere. Cohn and his partners Rich Rabin and Bill Marcus further specified a strong seafood orientation, exhibition cooking, and separate bar and dining room menus. The evolution of an actual menu and the design of cooking areas were carried out by Lopercio and other members of Big 4’s creative food team– working closely with Cohn, Rabin, and Marcus–concurrently with the total construction program. That teamwork, insists Lopercio, was critical, in that Big 4 is also involved in the ongoing operation of more than a dozen different restaurants and the development of several more projects in four states. “The key is to keep touching base so that the frontend and the back-end are always headed in the same direction,’ says Lopercio.


Because the menu had not yet been defined at the beginning of the project, flexibility was a major concern. Working with the design firm Reed/Hedberg Restaurant Design & Equipment, Inc., of Phoenix, Lopercio put in a kitchen that could handle a great deal of concept adaptation without retooling.

In both of the exhibition cooking areas–a main kitchen facing the dining room and a smaller grill positioned between the entryway and the cocktail lounge–the use of custom fabricated equipment has been minimized, in favor of individual components which can be reshuffled or even moved to another kitchen. To facilitate movement, equipment was put on wheels, with quick-disconnect outlets for electricity and gas. All utilities–gas, electric, and water –were “over spec’d’ to further accommodate movement, alleviating the need for major remodeling if new equipment is added. And the hood in the main production area was overrun by 50 percent, to 18 feet, in case the line is ever increased.

As Lopercio points out, this added capability may have cost a bit more at the outset, but has given Big 4 a great deal of flexibility and has also been offset by the lower initial price of component equipment. The kitchen and bar portion of the project, including equipment, cost about $200,000, or 20 percent of the total cost of the built-from-scratch construction.

In addition, despite the fact that there are three distinct cooking areas, total back-of-the-house space amounts to only about 1,900 sq. ft. (slightly more than 25 percent of the total) but has been producing up to 20,000 meals per four-week period.

“With real estate costs so high, cutting down on space allotted to the kitchen is one way to make ends meet,’ observes Lopercio. He calls his planning technique “zero base space planning,’ assuming the bare minimum in inventory and allocating storage space accordingly. This reduces both initial costs and holding costs, as well as the labor required to administrate and control inventory. The American Grill has no walk-in freezer space, and only one storage area for dry goods and liquor. Daily deliveries of produce, fish, and meat insure both freshness and minimal space requirements for refrigeration.

However, the kitchens have also been designed for maximum efficiency of operation. Lopercio “cooks the kitchen on paper’ during the design stage in order to trouble-shoot before construction takes place, and in more than 10 years with Big 4, he has worked every kitchen personally, so that he knows what constitutes a work station and what alterations might need to be made. Based on equipment plans provided by Reed/Hedberg, Lopercio develops a kitchen labor schedule which is also used to help establish the project pro forma; if labor costs come in too high, the menu can be simplified.

The American Grill’s three cooking areas can be staffed by six on all but the busiest nights. Tow cooks man the lounge cooking area, shucking clams and oysters, cooking bar appetizers such as hand-cut potato chips and fried artichoke hearts, and preparing individual cooked-to-order chowders. In the main kitchen, three stations–saute, broiler, and pantry (appetizers and salads)– comprise the production line, directed by a chef/manager who functions as expediter. At night, there is also one person working in the prep kitchen. To help cut down on prep costs, the production area also includes work sinks and tables so that the line men can do much of their own prep work. Outlets have been positioned so that slicers and food processors can be operated on line.

Designer Ron Hedberg, of Reed/Hedberg, points out that exhibition kitchens have their own special requirements and problems. Although not necessarily more expensive to construct, kitchens which are open to the public view take more care in planning and a bit more operating time. Ongoing cleanup is a vital concern; ideally the glass wall which separates The American Grill’s production line from the dining room should be cleaned every 45 minutes.

Perhaps the biggest hurdles to overcome when planning a display kitchen, however, are mechanical ones. Because people are dining so close to the cooking areas, HVAC must be particularly well designed and engineered. One of the few custom pieces in The American Grill, in fact, is the hood. “The ventilation system is practically in the dining room,’ says Lopercio. “The air balance system was a nightmare.’

It was particularly so because the cooking line was “flipped.’ Instead of having the stove along a central utility wall so that the cooks’ backs are to the dining room, the cooktop plus a woodburning grill face diners. Separated only by a half-wall (through which gas and electricity run) and a glass window, the entire cooking process can be seen. The designers even had backsplashes on equipment removed so that there is an eye-level view from seating.

The exhibition kitchen adds tremendously to the appeal of The American Grill. The single most popular dish on the menu has turned out to be the Cajun-style blackened rockfish. As the seasoned fish hits the superheated pan, a great sizzle and smoke are sent up, attracting considerable customer attention.

This type of excitement is generated the minute guests come in the door, where the first thing they see is the cooking area in the lounge, with its blackboard menu, fish signage, and fresh seafood in iced display cases. Here, chowder (crab or clam) is prepared to order for bar and dining room patrons in one of four individual steam-jacketed kettles. The chowder has proved to be immensely popular; projections called for 50 to 60 orders per night but as many as 150 bowls are sold on weekend nights. In fact, the chowder station is the one area in which the equipment has fallen short of need, andfour more kettles will be added.

The lounge cooking area also includes a small griddle, a fryer, a four-burner stove, and a cheese melter, as well as refrigeration and work space. Give this post: a thorough read to get a fair idea about how to buy the best vegetable steamer.


The main cooking area, though small, supports a varied menu. At lunch, there are grilled, roasted, and sauteed meats, main course salads, pastas, and interesting sandwiches like home-smoked turkey with avocado and bacon on Sally Lunn bread. At dinner, the menu is composed of a small core of specialties such as the blackened rockfish and a changing repetoire of fish and meats in the modern American style. Fish accounts for up to 60 percent of sales at dinner.

The major pieces of equipment on the line include a 10-burner gas stove; a grill which burns hardwood and is designed with close-spaced, flat rods to handle delicate fish; a custom-made rotisserie for ducks and other birds; a steamer; two fryers; a convection oven; cold station; reefer; griddle; twin heavy duty salamanders; and hot holding drawers for pre-cooked items such as baked potatoes. Everything stacks and fits together, with shelves and drawers above and below for additional equipment and storage. The only piece of custom stainless is the counter into which the grill and stove fit.

The prep area is remarkable for its diminutive size and the simplicity of its equipment plan, although there is a small slow-smoker and double convection ovens. Here too, everything is on wheels for ease in rearrangement and cleaning. Since the restaurant receives all its baked goods from Big 4’s Upper Crust bakery, there is no pastry station.

Servers’ orders are placed by means of a remote system. As soon as the guest check is rung up, a chit automatically emerges from an electronic printer in the appropriate cooking area. This system, and self-contained service stations in three corners of the dining room, keep servers out of the kitchen and on the floor, attending to customers. Adjacent to the ordering stand is a conveyorized oven for heating bread to order in a matter of seconds.

Food comes up in full view of diners, on a shelf carved out of the glass dividing wall. The half-wall below contains special storage areas facing the dining room which servers utilize for such items as lemons, tartar sauce, and other condiments. Desserts are stored and displayed on a custom-designed, chilled dessert station in the middle of the dining room which both merchandises add-ons and alleviates the need for additional pantry labor.

The kitchen has proved a success, from a design as well as a customer approval standpoint. Not only has the layout enabled the creators to experiment freely with the menu, but the tables near the kitchen are always the first to go.

Photo: The American Grill kitchen includes a rotisserie, woodburning grill, and a 10-burner gas stove.

Photo: A special feature of the dining room is the refrigerated dessert stand.

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