P.F. Chang's Rebuild Serves as Test Kitchen
Customers are voting with their palates at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in Irvine, California.
The 18-year-old Asian chain last month reopened its location at the Irvine Spectrum Center—one of its original four restaurants. Since August the chain has been rebuilding the restaurant from the foundation up, and developing new menus.
“We reached the end of a 15-year lease and we decided it was time, since it’s been such a successful restaurant, and the center has done nothing but grow and competition has gotten even greater,” says Lane Cardwell, president of P.F. Chang’s.
“Fifteen years is a long time. This gives us the opportunity to try to play a little bit in the future.”
Almost everything has changed in the 8,000-square-foot location.
P.F. Chang’s has removed thirty percent of the menu items—the least popular 30 percent of course. In place of those meals, dishes from Asian countries beyond China have been incorporated, such as Vietnamese crab salad, Singapore Black Pepper Prawns, and Shrimp and Bacon Okonomiyaki.
“We’re broadening the cuisine palate from our Chinese roots,” Cardwell says. “The new menu is based on guest feedback and market research we’ve done. Our customers have become much more sophisticated than they were 18 years ago about Asian food.”
The test kitchen will continually test and tweak the chain’s recipes, Cardwell says.
The drinks menu has also become more sophisticated. The wine list has almost doubled from 50 to 96 bottles, almost 40 of which cost $30 or less, in order to add more variety.
The cocktail menu has been refreshed to reflect new flavor trends and mixology developments.
Fresh squeezed carrot and pineapple juices are now incorporated into drinks such as the Carrot Canton, which uses a Canton liqueur and fresh carrot juice. Tiki drinks—including mai tai, rum punch, and tequila punch—have also been added to the menu, available as a single drink or in a large punch bowl for two.
But more than anything, beer has changed in the last 18 years, Cardwell says, and because beer is so localized, each of P.F. Chang’s restaurants has its own beer menu, even in multiple location markets.
The Irvine menu has four domestics, 10 imports, eight craft beers, and three ‘big bottle’ beers. “This is our first location to list the alcohol content of the beer, a trend that we have seen in several beer-forward concepts,” Cardwell says. “Beer is hot and getting hotter.”
Over the next three months P.F. Chang’s will be keeping a close watch on its Irvine location to see what sells and what doesn’t. Smash hits will be rolled out to all of the chain’s 204 locations, Cardwell says. Others will be introduced depending on how the company anticipates they’ll be accepted outside California. “It gives us a library of food to choose from,” Cardwell explains.
It’s not just food and drink that’s been overhauled. The décor and style of the restaurant has also been changed to fit more with 2012 than the original 1993 opening.
“We tried to push the envelope to see how far too far would be too far,” Caldwell says. “It wasn’t designed to be something that could be easily replicated but something we could draw from for future restaurants.”
Two walls are open to the outside, creating an inside-outside bar and restaurant as well as a wrap-around patio. The trademark P.F. Chang’s horse, warrior and hand-painted mural, have all been updated with greater artistic expression.
There’s also a lot more wood in the restaurant, especially in the ceiling and beams. “We believe that our heavy use of wood gives us less of a chain-like feel and adds to the sophistication and warmth of the restaurant,” Cardwell explains.
“It’s one of the very few restaurants that I’ve been in that looks as pleasing during the day as it does at night,” he adds. “Almost all restaurants are designed to look good at night as you can use light to accent things. But in this restaurant, you notice different things by day and at night.” The quality of wood is more noticeable by day, he adds, but at night the lighting is spectacular.
The music has also altered and now constantly changes throughout the day, suitable for each daypart—more upbeat music during happy hour and late at night, for example.
The uniforms have become more standard, and less “ninja-like,” says Cardwell, referring to the former outfit of black slacks and a knitted black pullover shirt. “It’s nothing earth shattering,” he says, “but it seems to match the rest of the restaurant.”
By Amanda Baltazar