KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Harry S. Truman once said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” But Pilot Flying J’s new kitchen model flips this maxim on its head. Instead, the retailer says, if employees can’t stand the heat, maybe the kitchen is too hot. “We really try hard to design spaces that are comfortable to work in,” says Shannon Johnson, vice president of food innovation for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based chain. “Kitchens don’t necessarily have to be hot and uncomfortable anymore.”
Pilot Flying J has integrated new employee- and customer service-oriented kitchens in about 50 stores over the past year and a half. The design is aimed at turning heads and reducing turnover.
To avoid the discomfort of what Johnson calls a “mac and cheese steam-table facial,” Pilot Flying J replaced its traditional steam tables with induction units. By transferring heat only to a pan, the induction technology helps to hold temperatures without heating the surrounding environment. The new system is also about 90% energy-efficient, he says. And employees appreciate their workplace being less humid.
When making the transition to induction, the company worked closely with suppliers.
“If you can create this environment of collaboration, the relationship can go from very transactional to strategic partners,” Johnson says. The retailer and its suppliers conducted equipment demonstrations in Pilot Flying J’s support center so that senior leadership, operations and the food innovation team understood the full vision.
Not fixating on price also can help develop strong supplier relationships during renovations.
“Price is important and the value that companies need to bring to guests is important, but it also needs to be about solving guest, team member and brand problems rather than just the financial part,” Johnson says. For instance, induction equipment can run a few thousand dollars more than steam tables.
When customers walk into renovated Pilot Flying J locations, they get a behind-the-scenes view at the brand’s new 1,800-square-foot open kitchens. Each location prepares all food on-site, and the open design helps tell that story transparently and build consumer trust.
“We want the food to be as close to the guest as possible so that it couldn’t be avoided,” Johnson says. “We’re trying to get it into the path of the guest so you literally run into it.”
The new layout also positions foodservice team members as the focal point of the store, with the PJ Fresh food concept facing the front entrance. The company is training team members to anticipate guests’ needs as soon as they open the door.
“We want to train our team members to recognize what the occasion is that brought guests to the store,” Johnson says. Foodservice workers are instructed to make eye contact and greet customers immediately Managers tell associates to look for cues that could indicate visit drivers, such as first-time customers looking for signage for the bathroom.
“It’s all about starting dialogue with guests,” he says.
Johnson says fresh foodservice items such as roasted half-chickens and salads, along with the revamped design, has boosted morale: “We feel our team members don’t want to come to work if it’s the same old, same old, and if they can’t be proud of what they serve.”
Pilot Flying J stores are about choice. The new design emphasizes options with as few pain points for customers and staff as possible, Johnson says.
As part of the renovation, the retailer reworked its grab-and-go cases. The most popular hot and cold foods are color-coded by category for efficient selections. “The goal is to offer guests as much as possible without them ever having to ask for it,” Johnson says.
After noticing that many employees took their breaks outside the store, Pilot Flying J added break rooms in some locations. The break rooms give team members a safe place to kick back when they’re off the clock.
“It goes back to a great team member experience,” Johnson says. “We always want to make sure team members are taken care of. When they feel cared for, they care for the guests.”