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Fast food firms find that less is more

Profit found in small buildings, fewer seats

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Fast food is slimming down.

Two of the biggest burger chains -- Wendy's and Burger King -- are developing restaurants with smaller kitchens and seating areas that operate profitably in small towns, cost less to build, and fit into cheaper parcels of land. A third chain, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, also is trimming the square-foot fat, and even Applebee's, a sit-down chain, has reduced restaurant size in rural areas.

Analysts said the smaller stores operate more efficiently and allow chains to stake their claim both in sparsely populated areas that generate less traffic and in urban areas where large plots of land are scarce and have become increasingly expensive.

''The rent goes down; the labor goes down; the entire overhead shrinks; but the product keeps moving out," said Arlene Spiegel, a restaurant-industry consultant in New York. ''They really don't have the luxury of big real estate opportunities any more."

Fast-food executives said the slimmer restaurants can save up to a third of construction costs and can be squeezed onto half the acreage usually needed.

''When we really sat down and started talking to franchisees about why they weren't building restaurants it became clear that we needed to change," said John W. Chidsey, president of the Americas for Burger King Corp., based in Miami.

The burger chain has cut overall square footage by about a third, reducing the size of the kitchen and cutting the seating roughly in half, to 40 seats. The new design will account for the majority of stores built in the future, Chidsey said. The chain has 11,000 locations, about 90 percent of which are franchised.

Such stores are meant to go in smaller towns or areas between larger stores, Wendy's chief operating officer, Tom Mueller, said. The chain also has a new design that's roughly a third smaller than its traditional restaurant.

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