With their metallic winged roofs, neon signs and checkerboard- tile exteriors, Checkers and Rally’s restaurants have always stood out from the fast-food pack as an unabashed throwback to a bygone era.
That perspective hasn't stopped the privately owned company from becoming a successful competitor in an industry dominated by McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. In 2015, Checkers and Rally's 471 restaurants pulled in total sales of $658.7 million.
Now, the eateries’ Tampa-based parent company is establishing a set of new, sustainable building templates. The build-out designs keep the most recognizable elements of the brand intact while adding cost- and time-saving construction methods to maximize profitability and return on investment.
One of the new building templates is a prefabricated hybrid design that features the use of repurposed shipping containers as structural support.
“In the global economy, a lot of goods, quite frankly, are being shipped into the U.S. from overseas, and it’s often cheaper to sell the containers rather than send them back empty,” said Jennifer Durham, head of development for Checkers & Rally’s. “So there’s a surplus – you have more containers coming in than going out.
"What’s great about these containers is that there’s a standard size that works very well not just for quick service restaurants but also for tiny homes and even retail. The interior is finished off using traditional construction, and they’re very efficient from an energy standpoint.”
The company last revamped the design of its restaurants in 2012, when it eliminated its signature double drive-thru in favor of a single-lane setup, which allowed the company to reconfigure its kitchens for greater efficiency.
This latest round of tweaks, dubbed Checkers & Rally’s Model 4.0, is more subtle and is aimed primarily at franchisees who are building new restaurants or replacing old ones. In addition to the hybrid container template, the new models include a variation of a traditional on-site building as well as a non-container, prefab restaurant constructed off-site and then delivered to the franchisee. Durham said that all three options offer significant advantages to operators, despite not flaunting obvious changes that will be noticed by customers.
“The look of the building is more of an evolution than a revolution,” she said. “What is significantly different is the cost and the options to build in a nontraditional way. It gives operators the flexibility to decide whether they want to do a site-built option or a modular option. The three options have the same floor plan; the only difference is the way they are built. But it’s also about time. You can get this building open four to eight weeks faster. You don’t need to go through the permitting process before building.
"That all happens simultaneously. It’s so easy because it’s already been done at the state level.”
Tampa is one of the first markets in the country where the next-generation Checkers and Rally’s restaurant designs will be rolled out. Franchisee Shaji Joseph is getting ready to debut one at 2702 E. Busch Blvd. in Tampa, near Busch Gardens, after recently opening a 4.0 eatery in Spring Hill, Fla. A longtime Checkers & Rally’s employee before becoming a franchisee in 2014, he also operates Checkers restaurants in Pinellas Park, Ruskin, and Sun City Center.
“Looking at the new prototype, we are really excited because of the pricing, structural layout and operational efficiency,” Joseph said. “I think it’s going to be a very good setup for us. Going from the double drive-thru to a single lane will make the restaurant more efficient and user-friendly from an operations and service perspective.”
Joseph immigrated to the U.S. from India and said one of his first jobs was as an assistant manager of a Checkers in Pennsylvania. He eventually rose through the ranks to become director of operations at the company’s Tampa headquarters. Nineteen years after joining, he’s still with the company.
“I like the simplicity of the brand, how easy it is to operate, and the small footprint,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of land – about 830 square feet. And now with the prefabricated restaurant model, it comes in pre-built and that makes it so much easier for us from a construction standpoint. All I need to do is prepare the ground. Also, it takes care of a lot of the permitting process. So many licensing requirements are already satisfied. It’s like buying a restaurant off the shelf.”
As a franchisee, Joseph said he was impressed with how Checkers & Rally’s solicited and welcomed his feedback about the three new building options.
“There’s always interaction between the company and the franchisees,” he said. “We were able to provide input via a franchise advisory council. We told them about existing issues and how changes could be streamlined into the new restaurant formats. They took most of our suggestions and worked on putting them into the new models.”
One change customers might notice, Durham said, can be found inside the restaurants, where the traditional speaker-box communication system has been ditched in favor of headsets to improve communication among employees who are busy slinging burgers, fries and shakes.
“The new format is much quieter,” Durham explained. “It still has a hum to it; it’s not perfectly quiet. But the old restaurant design was more of a loud, industrial environment. Checkers and Rally’s are busy places that are all about speed and efficiency, so having more calm and quiet is great. It’s not like you could go to sleep in there, but it’s far less noisy. It makes for a much more pleasant environment for the employees. Now you don’t have to scream and yell to be heard.”