Case Studies

Jim Fay – Brinker International

Taking a bite out of the restaurant industry’s economic challenges

Each time Jim Fay helps Brinker International open a new Chili’s restaurant site, the average cost at the moment is close to $4 million as a result of inflation. In 2019, the cost was just over $2 million.

While this may seem astronomical to the layman, working with this type of budget is typical for Fay. He’s been overseeing and managing restaurant projects for over three decades.

Fay first worked for Brinker International from 1993 to 1998 as the director of architectural services. In September 2017, he returned as the company’s senior director of architecture and real estate. Brinker International is the Dallas-based parent company for several casual dining restaurant subsidiaries across the nation, including Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy.

His extensive experience has come in handy as he’s helped Brinker International grow its brand—and weather the challenges of economic, labor and supply headwinds and shortages that came with the 2020 global pandemic. In the past couple of years, he’s seen costs rise as much as 45 percent, which is why opening a new Chili’s has been so expensive.

Yet, he knows that even if the upfront costs are high, Brinker’s long-term interests demand an increase in number of locations. So, he’s focused on being as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

“We’re always looking to be more economical, but this effort has become essential as we look at continued growth in the face of a world still in the clasp of a global pandemic,” Fay says.

When in Rome—modernize as needed

A key part of that growth, according to Fay, isn’t just opening new restaurant locations, but upgrading and modernizing existing ones.

For example, Fay and his team of nine are working on a new prototype for Maggiano’s Little Italy to give the restaurants an “more modern, polished casual” feel, he says. Currently, the restaurant has a “rat pack” look; the original creator based it on Little Italy in New York, with darker lighting and lots of black and white pictures from the 1940s and 1950s. The atmosphere was meant to evoke the tradition of Italian immigrants and their food in America.

“It was a successful and well-known brand, but we’re excited about evolving it and making it more relevant to today’s guests,” Fay says.

So, he’s working with Maggiano’s restaurant architect, Chuck Bennett, whom he hired a few years ago, to create a new restaurant design. They’re also budgeting and outlining criteria for selecting new sites, such as high density and high traffic areas near or inside shopping malls, retail and business centers.

This new Maggiano’s with brighter lighting and modern details is meant to cater to the social-media era and lead to post-worthy photos. This starts with a new location in north Dallas. The $8.5 million, 8,900-square-foot restaurant will have a more open layout. The walls will have contemporary matted and framed black and white photos of actual guests celebrating their special occasions in Maggiano’s.

He’s hoping that people will start to see the upgraded, modernized Maggiano’s within the next 18 to 24 months.

“The objective is to create a new growth vehicle for future Maggiano’s sites with a ‘kit of parts’ that can be used to update the existing locations,” Fay says. “It’ll still be Maggiano’s, just a more modern and relevant version.”

A bowl of Chili’s

Fay says the beautiful part of what he does is being able to work closely with his partners at Brinker’s operations, marketing and supply chain divisions and many others across the organization—not to mention consultants, suppliers and vendors.

“We’re quite a team, which makes working fun, collaborative and efficient,” he says. “It’s essential to meeting Brinker’s ambitious goals.”

Working collaboratively helps generate new ideas for the company’s future, he adds. This is something he’s currently doing with Chili’s, which he oversees design for, as he works with architects and other vendors to rebrand the chain’s locations across the nation. He estimates this effort will be completed in about five years, having already completed nearly half of the 1,300 total sites. He also hopes to open around 15 new Chili’s locations this year.

The project involves replacing traditional or more expensive equipment with cooking platforms with new technologies. The new clam-shell grills and ovens are automated and more efficient.

“It is an enormous undertaking, especially with supply chain shortages and most materials coming in from overseas,” Fay says. “Yet, we’re doing our best to stay agile and nimble.”

Sometimes, he simply must wait. The lead times for rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditioning units or electrical switchgear’s have been as much as a year. So, he’s established long-term contracts to mitigate lead times and costs while becoming partners with vendors.

“In many cases, this has ensured access to products while also benefiting the vendors who know they have a consistent buyer for their products,” he says.

A dash of dining and Dallas

While working in the restaurant and food industry is challenging, Fay says it’s been exceptionally so since the global pandemic began in 2020.

But he has an excellent team and feels comfortable working once again in Dallas, a city from where he can’t seem to stay away—despite having worked with large companies in Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco.

“Dallas is either my destiny or just at the bottom of a metaphorical bowl,” he tells Blueprint with a laugh. “I keep rolling right back into it.”

Food was also his destiny. When he graduated from the University of Oklahoma with his bachelor’s in architecture, he became a senior project architect for the Urban Architecture firm. While others at the firm were having a meeting with one of the clients, Brinker International, he happened to meet some of its team—and was blown away by the culture and the work.

So, after nearly a decade with Urban Architecture, Fay decided to join the Brinker team. He then left for other opportunities and worked at a variety of places from Chevys Fresh Mex and Seattle Coffee Company to TGI Fridays with Carlson Restaurants and Jack in the Box.

Although his career has revolved around food, he has many interests outside the world of restaurants. For instance, he spends a lot of time road and mountain biking on trails near his home, which he says are some of the premier mountain bike trails in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Back in the 1990s, he raced road bikes as a category 3 racer.

“I love what I do for work, but biking is a fantastic way to relieve all the stresses of the day while staying fit and focused,” Fay says. “Of course, just like mountain trekking and biking, the restaurant industry is full of some exhilarating challenges—and I enjoy helping Brinker navigate those.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. V 2023 Edition here.

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