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Architecture + Branding: Playful building design significantly downplays Pal’s Sudden Service’s serious commitment to perfecting process and performance

1-Waxing nostalgic

In recent years, many of the national burger chains have expanded their menus to the point of bursting by trying to chase several trends and adapting to changing consumer tastes and expectations. Today’s quick serve restaurant (QSR) customer is inundated with more choices, LTOs (limited time offerings) and order personalization options than ever before.

The more complex menus have led to unintended consequences, such as longer wait times, increased order fulfillment errors, poor or inconsistent execution, spiraling input costs and rising frustrations from consumers and franchisees/ operators.

The simple 1950s-era menu of burgers, fries and shakes that once defined the old-fashioned burger joints (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, A&W) has been relegated to the history books for most.

However, Pal’s Sudden Service, a Tennessee-based regional fast food restaurant chain, thrives on maintaining the simplicity ethos/hallmark of the mid-century burger joints.

2-A new service model

Largely unknown nationally, Pal’s Sudden Service commands a cult-like reverence in its Tennessee/Virginia territory.

Nonetheless, the chain can trace its roots back to 1952, when founder Fred “Pal” Barger, stationed in Austin, Texas, observed a quick service carryout-only restaurant named 2-J’s (source: palsbei.com). A fortuitous encounter with McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 1955, who shared a similar quick service restaurant vision, served to further galvanize Fred Barger’s restaurant concept (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

In 1956, the first Pal’s Sudden Service, normally called Pal’s for short, opened at 327 Revere Street in downtown Kingsport, TN (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org, bloomberg.com). At a time when car hops and sit-down restaurants were the norm, the Pal’s business model challenged preconceived ideals.

Pals 01 327 Revere Street Kingsport TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 01, front 3/4 view, 327 Revere Street, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Customers would walk to the front of the building, placed their order, and moved along the front counter to drink and food pick-up points (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org). The original location consisted of a small and squat building, with a forward cantilevered roof that doubled as a functional awning over the recessed counter. Clad in red and white subway tiles, the front portion has since been retrofitted to enclose the front portion with glazing.

Pals 01 327 Revere Street Kingsport TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 01, front 3/4 view, 327 Revere Street, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

In the early days, the menu was simple, Sauceburgers, Frenchie Fries, Milk Shakes, and Soft Drinks (source: palsbei.com). The limited menu, combined with a simple operational procedure, almost universally assured fast service speeds.

In 1958, in a bid to expand Pal’s Sudden Service, Fred Barger purchased an existing ice cream (Arctic) operation. (source: bloomberg.com, palsbei.com). Briefly operated under the Arctic banner, the Lynn Garden Drive location in Kingsport, Tennessee was later converted into a Pal’s Sudden Service (source: bloomberg.com, palsbei.com).

Pals 02 1315 Lynn Garden Drive Kingsport TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 02, front 3/4 view, 1315 Lynn Garden Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Sporting bold colours, Pal’s no. 2 also featured a 50’s-style lighted sign, which was removed in 2009 due to high operating costs (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

Pals 02 1315 Lynn Garden Drive Kingsport TN 5 https___maps.google

Pal’s 02, side 3/4 view, 1315 Lynn Garden Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, in 1962, a large fiberglass “Muffler Man” called Big Pal holding a large hamburger was added on the roof (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org). It was a stroke of advertising/marketing genius that generated restaurant traffic and buzz, and helped Pal’s stand out from the competition.

3-The napkin sketch

Decades later, a napkin sketch by artists/designers Karen and Tony Barone, would become the launching off point for what would be a larger-than-life, branded aesthetic (source: palsbei.com).

Pals 03 4224 Fort Henry Drive Kingsport TN 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 03, front 3/4 view, 4224 Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

In 1985, Pal’s opened the first drive-thru location, adorned by a Big Pal (Hamburger), Hot Dog, an Order of Frenchie Fries and drink cup, in Colonial Heights (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org). The new restaurant design would mark the first iteration of the unique, attention generating box/tiered drive-thru building concept.

Pals 03 4224 Fort Henry Drive Kingsport TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 03, right side view, 4224 Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Also in 1985, a second location featuring the new design language would open on Stone Drive (source: palsbei.com). Focused on a limited menu, the core of the predominantly drive-thru, quick service hamburger and hot dog operation is pretty much displayed on the front facade.

Pals 04 1120 East Stone Drive Kingsport TN 4 https___maps.google

Pal’s 04, front 3/4 view, 1120 East Stone Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

This new design would give rise to a repeatable form factor that would come to define the architectural identity of the Pal’s brand. Testing and refining the restaurant format and formula, Pal’s Sudden Service would abstain from adding new stores for the remainder of the decade.

4-Validate. Replicate.

Although the restaurant chain grew slowly in its first quarter century, from a single store to four, its growth rate would accelerate dramatically in its second quarter century. From 1990 into present day, Pal’s more or less averaged one new store opening per year.

The fifth Pal’s, featuring the box/tiered drive-thru building design, opened in January 1990 to a warm reception (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

Pals 05 1200 West State of Franklin Johnson City TN 5 https___maps.google

Pal’s 05, front view, 1200 West State of Franklin, Johnson City, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Location no. 6, the first strip mall location, would follow in 1991 (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org). Unsurprisingly, the new locale presented limited potential to adopt any of the defining design and aesthetic characteristics of the drive-thru locations. However, the additional space did afford the possibility of incorporating a dining room area.

Pals 06 1357 Tusculum Blvd Greeneville TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 06, front view, 1357 Tusculum Boulevard, Greeneville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Located in Virginia, Pal’s no. 7, which also featured the inimitable box/tiered drive-thru design, opened in 1991 (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

Pals 07 527 Kane Street Gate City VA 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 07, left side view, 527 Kane Street, Gate City, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

The Mall at Johnson City would become home to Pal’s no. 8 in 1992. Located in the mall food court, the overall design maximized the use of bold colours and shapes to communicate the Pal’s persona and fun atmosphere (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

Pals 08 Directory Map The Mall at Johnson City

Pal’s 08, food court at The Mall at Johnson City, 2011 North Roan Street, Johnson City, Tennessee (source: mallatjohnsoncity.com)

In the same year, Pal’s no. 9, adopting the distinct box/tiered drive-thru building design, opened in Elizabethton, TN (source: palsbei.com, wikipedia.org).

Pals 09 413 West Elk Avenue Elizabethton TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 09, front 3/4 view, 413 West Elk Avenue, Elizabethton, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 09 413 West Elk Avenue Elizabethton TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 09, rear 3/4 view, 413 West Elk Avenue, Elizabethton, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Over the next 20-plus years, another dozen and a half additional Pal’s would replicate and propagate the box/tiered drive-thru building design across the Tennessee/Virginia region.

Pals 12 1735 Fort Henry Drive Kingsport TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 12, front 3/4 view, 1735 Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Starting off with a basic rectangular shape, the front façade is lopped off in staggered steps, creating a form reminiscent of a tiered wedding cake. Long and narrow, thin and tall, the small volume with barren side and rear walls seems overly minute and miniscule.

Pals 25 104 Mossy Creek Drive Jefferson City TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 25 (under construction), left side 3/4 view, 104 Mossy Creek Drive, Jefferson City, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 24 2866 Boones Creek Road Johnson City TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 24 (under construction), front 3/4 view, 2866 Boones Creek Road, Johnson City, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 15 437 Richmond Street Church Hill TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 15, front 3/4 view, 437 Richmond Street, Church Hill, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Combining a series of well defined elevations, front, rear, and sides, ingress and egress points are however less discernible. Matching in colour to the surrounding wall plane, doors are dissimulated and concealed into the adjacent exterior wall surface.

Pals 18 257 Old Gray Station Rd Gray TN 4 https___maps.google

Pal’s 18, left side 3/4 view, 257 Old Gray Station Road, Gray, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 19 3277 Highway 126 Blountville TN 4 https___maps.google

Pal’s 19, rear 3/4 view, 3277 Highway 126, Blountville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Exhibiting a dramatic lack of windows, the light blue coloured building commands outsized attention relative to its actual volume/footprint. Effectively suggesting a disdain for transparency, the opaque building purports a level of purposeful and functional concealment that quite literally borders on being uninviting.

Pals 19 3277 Highway 126 Blountville TN 6 https___maps.google

Pal’s 19, right side 3/4 view, 3277 Highway 126, Blountville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 25 104 Mossy Creek Drive Jefferson City TN 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 25, left side 3/4 view, 104 Mossy Creek Drive, Jefferson City, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Drive-thru windows, one on each side, are further accentuated by the significant lack of ornamentation and visual clutter at the base of the building. Of note, order taking is done through face-to-face interactions at Pal’s as the company systematically shuns speaker systems (source: incmag.com, burgerbusiness.com). Tacked-on, the punched window type/style of drive-thru order window detail breaks up the monotony of the linear sides.

Pals 12 1735 Fort Henry Drive Kingsport TN 5 https___maps.google

Pal’s 12, right side view, 1735 Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 16 101 Alexis Drive Bristol VA 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 16, front view, 101 Alexis Drive, Bristol, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 15 437 Richmond Street Church Hill TN 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 15, left side view, 437 Richmond Street, Church Hill, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Although quite colourful, the overall building proposes minimal visual enhancements. Red coloured ornamental gooseneck-type downlights (exterior light fixtures), lined near the roof line in a uniform pattern, spruce up the elevations and add a splash of alternate colour.

Pals 16 101 Alexis Drive Bristol VA 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 16, right side view, 101 Alexis Drive, Bristol, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 14 2301 West Andrew Johnson Highway Morristown TN 3 https___maps.google

Pal’s 14, front 3/4 view, 2301 West Andrew Johnson Highway, Morristown, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 10 960 Volunteer Parkway Bristol TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 10, right side 3/4 view, 960 Volunteer Parkway, Bristol, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Additionally, many locations have modest awnings that provide cover from the elements above the drive-thru windows, as well as add some design relief to the side elevations.

Pals 11 3206 Bristol Highway Johnson City TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 11, right side 3/4 view, 3206 Bristol Highway, Johnson City, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 17 3012 North John B Dennis Highway Kingsport TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 17, front 3/4 view, 3012 North John B Dennis Highway, Kingsport, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Capped by a flat roof devoid of any overhangs, the slab-sided exterior facades serve only to amplify the smallish building footprint/size.

Pals 19 3277 Highway 126 Blountville TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 19, front view, 3277 Highway 126, Blountville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 14 2301 West Andrew Johnson Highway Morristown TN 4 https___maps.google

Pal’s 14, front view, 2301 West Andrew Johnson Highway, Morristown, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Pals 20 1200 East Jackson Blvd Jonesborough TN 4 https___maps.google

Pal’s 20, front 3/4 view, 1200 East Jackson Boulevard, Jonesborough, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

Although already distinct in shape and configuration, Pal’s prototypical restaurant format is further differentiated with the addition of the oversized Big Pal (Hamburger), Hot Dog, order of Frenchie Fries and drink cup tacked onto the front façade.

5-Benchmarking

From the outset, the blue coloured, tiered, boxy, drive-thru restaurants should alert even the casual observer that Pal’s Sudden Service is a slightly eccentric and offbeat Quick Service Restaurant (QSR). However, its growth history and brand evolution clearly reveals staid, methodical, deliberate, and rational overtones.

Striving for continuous improvements, the Pal’s approach rests on being the best, not the biggest. Even with its limited menu, the quirky regional fast food restaurant chain generates nearly $2 million average unit sales, exceeding every QSR in its territory except McDonald’s (source: burgerbusiness.com). Flooded with franchising inquiries annually, Pal’s Sudden Service is undeniably a “sought after brand”.

Pals 13 4308 Highway 66 South Rogersville TN 2 https___maps.google

Pal’s 13, front view, 4308 Highway 66 South, Rogersville, Tennessee (source: maps.google.com)

However, each Pal’s location is company-owned, “and operated through a unique agreement with Pal’s store operators who have successfully completed Pal’s leadership training.” (source: palsweb.com, burgerbusiness.com, qsrmagazine.com) As such, franchising opportunities at Pal’s are non-existent.

The first and only restaurant brand/company to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001, Pal’s was putting the competition on notice (source: palsweb.com, palsbei.com, burgerbusiness.com, wikipedia.org). In the same year, Pal’s created the Business Excellence Institute, which attempts to share best business practices with other organizations and individuals (source:palsbei.com, burgerbusiness.com). Oddly though, the abundant level of openness and over-sharing exhibited through the BEI initiative seems at odds with the brand’s almost fortress-like stores that afford few reveals of the benchmark-worthy/best practice processes and procedures at hand.

Pals 21 370 Overlook Drive Lebanon VA 1 https___maps.google

Pal’s 21, left side view, 370 Overlook Drive, Lebanon, Virginia (source: maps.google.com)

Employee turnover at half the industry average, order accuracy and speed, respectively 10 times and 4 times faster than their competitors, Pal’s is benchmarked within the industry (source: bloomberg.com, qsrmagazine.com). Combining the slow, systematic, strategic growth and cult-like fervour the brand commands amongst its customers, Pal’s will undoubtedly outgrow its Tri-Cities regional base, and their blue-hued box/tiered drive-thru restaurants will surely begin to populate locales across the country.

 

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

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About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.

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