Originally created 07/30/00

Just add customers



For about $300,000, father-and-son fast-food owners Ralph and Robert Black bought a used Checkers building and had it moved to Augusta on two flatbed trucks.

They hoisted it into place, just off Washington Road, with a crane. Within an hour, the 14-foot by 54-foot building was resting on a new foundation - its Coca-Cola machine, refrigerator and overhead lighting already inside.

"That's what's nice about the buildings," Ralph Black said as the crane swung around with the 40-ton burger joint. "You can move them and be in business quicker."

Off-site construction is not new. Remember the diner?

Even though many eateries that call themselves diners are not prefabricated, the eateries - by definition - are "long, narrow structures that were built somewhere else and hauled to a distant site."

The makers of mobile homes have been doing it for decades. But now, more and more buildings - houses included - are arriving completely or partly assembled.

Prefab construction seems to be in vogue, and mobile diners are coming back. You can even order your own 1950s-style diner with one phone call, just as you would order a pizza.

Dial up for a diner and it should arrive in about 90 days.

Made to order

Building from the ground up is still the predominant construction method. Most homes and restaurants are built that way. But a few companies are making a case for assembling a structure, or parts of one, inside a factory and trucking it to its foundation.

According to the companies, the benefits of building this way are numerous.

Such buildings and homes use more framing material - 20 to 30 percent more, modularcenter.com reports - to provide a secure trip. They are built in a controlled area so the construction is plumb and level. And there are no rain or snowstorms inside the factory to delay work.

Therefore, the structures are stronger and straighter than conventionally built buildings and completed on schedule.

Take the Checkers on Washington Road as an example.

The Blacks will have to make a few modifications to it before they fire up the grill. They need to connect gas, water, sewerage and electricity. But they expect to see fresh-faced employees serving lines of cars with 99-cent Champ burgers and fries by September.

They don't have to worry about construction contractors. They don't have to pull a lot of permits. And, if they want to just pick up and start over somewhere else, they can.

About 95 percent of the Checkers in America, more than 400 of them, are constructed this way. The drive-through restaurants are plopped into place with cables and a crane. The simple no-muss, no-fuss installation allows the fast-food company to get its burger joints up and running quickly.

It probably would cost about as much to build the drive-in on site, the Blacks said, but it would require more time and hassle.

"Everything's already in there," Ralph Black pointed out.

Mobile homes

Home builders also are turning to this method, called modular construction. Modular homes often arrive in pieces with the walls, windows, cabinets and fixtures already installed and are assembled on site.

Modular and manufactured homes both are made in a factory, but builders and dealers point out that modular homes are attached to a foundation and much more like site-built homes than manufactured homes.

On Wednesday, Augusta-based Sunshine Homes owner Bill Nowlin was installing a 2,200-square-foot modular house on Hilton Head Island, S.C. The four-bedroom, $260,000 home with a white exterior was built in a factory in Rocky Mount, Va.

It arrived in four pieces on four trucks.

Mr. Nowlin used to offer both manufactured and modular homes, but he has sold so many modular homes recently that he intends to stop offering manufactured houses and concentrate on the modular business. He expects to sell about 50 this year.

One reason more customers are choosing modular houses is that they sometimes are less expensive to build. Instead of paying carpenters $45 a hour, the going rate on Hilton Head, he said, a modular house can be put together hiring carpenters at $9 an hour, the rate to build the home in a factory in Virginia.

There also is less waste, he said.

The modular homes come with a variety of options - including microwave ovens.

"You can have any amenities you want," Mr. Nowlin said.

Cash or charge

Until recently, Clearwater, Fla.-based Checkers Drive-In Restaurants owned its own construction division that made its modular buildings. It sold the division last month to a German company because the company wanted to concentrate on its core business: hamburgers.

Checkers started building modular restaurants in 1989. The company stopped building new ones, however, in 1995. Since then, it simply has refurbished buildings that were shut down and moved.

The biggest advantage of the modular designs, Checkers Vice President Dick Sreum said, is with taxes. The company can claim tax depreciation on mobile buildings faster than it can on permanent ones.

"I think," Mr. Sreum said, "it's probably an option quite a lot of companies are looking at."

Maybe this is why the prefab diner - invented, according to diner publication Roadside Magazine, as a sophisticated lunch wagon by Walter Scott in 1872 - seems to be making a comeback.

Diner-Mite Diners, an Atlanta-based company, has been selling modular diners since 1959. But recently, the company said, business is booming.

Diner-Mite is selling its stainless-steel eateries all over the world. Neiman-Marcus even offered Diner-Mite diners in its 1997 Christmas catalog.

For about $149,500 you, too, can buy a shiny, 60-seat Diner-Mite Diner. If you have a large enough limit, you can even pay with a credit card.

Reach Frank Witsil at 823-3352.