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.”