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Value Added: Behind the counter at Chop’t, a lesson in keeping the line moving

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Throughput: the quantity or amount of raw material processed within a given time.

I decided I was going to write a column about Chop’t Creative Salad Company, the fast-salad — and I mean fast — restaurant, as soon as I started visiting less than a year ago.

The salads are tasty and good for me — that’s half the reason I eat there. The other half is the theater that comes with the salad assembly line.

To get a firsthand taste of what it’s like to meet Chop’t’s standards for speed, I donned an apron and stepped behind the counter at one of the chain’s D.C. stores to take a few literal whacks at the food with my “mezzaluna,” as the mincing knives are called.

Don’t worry. Nothing I made found its way to the public. As they say in the investment industry, I ate my own cooking.

The process appeals to my geekiness. I am goofy on fast-food operations. I am a fan of Five Guys’ simplicity. I admire Starbucks’ teamwork.

Most lunchtimes at Chop’t on K Street, the line winds out the door and down the street. I touch the stopwatch on my iPod Nano to measure my wait. Chop’t’s owners consider anything beyond a 10-minute wait to get served unacceptable.

That has happened to me once out of 25 or so visits.

The entrepreneurs behind the show, two charismatic New Yorkers named Tony Shure and Colin McCabe, both 37, are messianic about speed.

Chop’t is built on throughput. If you run a business based on serving lots of people in short time spans, you must master throughput.

“It’s all about the lunch rush,” the quotable Shure said.

Some Washington Chop’ts push 250 customers through between noon and 1 p.m. Then 200 or so between 1 and 2.

At less than $10 a salad, 250 salads gross almost $2,500 or so for Chop’t in one hour, before any extras such as drinks, chips and cookies. Chop’t makes about a $2 profit on every salad.

The company isn’t built entirely on lunch. About a third of its business is at night. About 20 percent comes from online-ordered takeout.

Chop’t has nine restaurants around Washington and plans to build out to around 16 or so. They are all owned by Shure, McCabe and their investors, whom they decline to name. Washington is the only city outside of the New York market where Chop’t has pioneered. There are 10 restaurants in New York, so 19 in all. The owners eventually plan to have 75, limited to the Eastern Seaboard.

“I really wanted to plant a flag in D.C.,” said Shure. “After London, D.C. is the second most competitive lunchtime place on the planet. You can eat anything in D.C.”

Each Chop’t restaurant averages $2 million to $3 million in revenue, and all are profitable, with margins in the 15 to 20 percent range. So the company earns about $40 million a year, with profit north of $5 million. New stores are paid for out of operating profit. The company has no debt.

Shure and McCabe got the idea for Chop’t while they were students at the University of Wisconsin in the 1990s. Their devotion to speed came almost by accident.

“The smartest thing we did was unknowingly set our restaurants up for speed and throughput,” Shure said. “We weren’t even thinking sales volume.”

Each restaurant has around 30 employees. Three to four managers oversee the operations. The company has central kitchens — one in Rockville, another in the New York borough of Queens — that supply the food.

The lunchtime choreography is something to behold.

The assembly line is divided into two groups of employees: the assemblers who take your order and collect your ingredients and the choppers, who slice and dice the salad into a consistency fine enough to eat with a spoon.

Both assemblers and choppers are trained for 20 to 30 hours before they take their positions on the front line.

Each assembler has to be familiar with all of Chop’t’s ingredients. Chop’t offers 24 homemade dressings, six lettuces and 55 separate ingredients, from the FreeBird grilled chicken to roasted beets to gigante beans and peppadew peppers. Every 60 days, they add three seasonal salads, which could include offbeat items such as roasted butternut squash or tasso ham.

(I haven’t even learned how to operate my company’s in-house computer system.)

They must be able to field difficult or particular customers, taking care of their desires while knowing exactly which ingredient to gather with expert efficiency. A slow assembler can delay the entire line, pushing customers into the 10-minute “danger zone.”

The entire process, from ordering food to checkout, should take no more than four minutes.

To stay under that number, managers patrol the floor, troubleshooting and directing traffic. They eyeball people in the line, gauging who might demand a more complicated salad. One sure sign of trouble: customers who prop their elbows on the counter and want to talk.

“You have to have a feel for it,” McCabe said. “You have to know from the person coming in whether they are going to take a long time and hold up the line, in which case you have to redirect the people behind them.”

Chop’t has two stations of assemblers and two stations of choppers; think of it as two turnstiles at a stadium. If one is backing up, the customer can go to the other to get the same service. The managers move employees around like a basketball coach substituting between timeouts. An assembler may get pulled from the trench to help fill a slot at a cash register.

“The most important thing is that the line keeps moving,” said Chop’t chief executive Nick Marsh, whom the founders recruited in 2006. “As long as you have constant motion and people are moving and see no bottlenecks, and people see customers getting served,” customers in line will stick around.

Shure said the key to success has been discipline. He and McCabe spend hours riding through Washington commercial areas with their broker, Thomas N. Papadopoulos, hunting for the choicest spots for new Chop’t locations.

“Our biggest competition is whoever is trying to get the best real estate,” Shure said.

“We are pretty scientific the way we run this. We have not had a bad restaurant, thank God. A bad restaurant can destabilize a company. It is tempting to sell muffins and a bunch of other stuff, but we stick with salad.”

And they stick with profits.

For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

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