Restaurant patrons these days seem to play a never-ending game of “Beat the Clock.” In today’s constantly connected, always on-the-go world, there’s less and less time for people to sit down and enjoy what used to be termed a “relaxed” meal. As a result, restaurants continue to reexamine their workflows and preparation methods with an eye toward speeding things up.
While lunch has traditionally been the time when fast service was considered important, this need for speed now cuts across all dayparts. "Most people are not taking time to make breakfast as we've historically thought of breakfast at home," notes Karen Malody, principal of Culinary Options in Santa Fe, N.M. "They're dashing to work, often eating in the car. And at a lot of the B&I foodservice operators I've worked with in the last two to three years, [employees] are lucky if they take a half-hour lunch." At dinner, Malody adds, diners "either want to get out of the restaurant because the kids are restless or they just want to get home."
Rich Goodman, vice president of operations services for the 900-unit Firehouse Subs chain, claims this time crunch has helped fuel the explosion of the fast-casual segment. "Five to 10 years ago, fast-casual restaurants either didn't exist or if they did exist, the concept of getting your food that quickly wasn't really top of mind," he says.
But the ability to produce high-quality product quickly entails more than just cracking the whip with employees; it necessitates a systems analysis of the entire operation. "The first thing to do is to pay attention to all the details," says Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc., a kitchen design firm in Chicago. She feels that's critical to ensure a good experience for both guests and crew. "You really want to understand the flow and the functions, and where you have things along the way."
Flow and function are particularly important at sandwich-oriented fast-casual operations, where customers typically expect immediate service. But can operators reconcile speed of service with made-to-order, higher quality ingredients and preparation? Through efficient design and service techniques, two chains continue to manage those expectations and deliver freshly made product fast.
"I have a very strong feeling about speed," says Goodman. "It's more about perception than reality. From a perception standpoint, I believe the consumer knows when they're coming to us they're not going to get the same speed they would at a fast food joint. But they're looking for that perception of, 'Are you guys hustling to get my food out or are you just standing around?'"
The Firehouse Subs sandwich prep method involves heating the meat and cheese in a steamer unit which, Goodman notes, takes slightly more than two minutes to bring the product to the proper serving temperature. The customer pays before receiving the order and a staff member delivers the finished sandwich to the table. While Firehouse Subs uses the customer's name for order identification, Goodman says the chain continues to explore adding table numbers to the system to shave a few more seconds off the delivery time.
Hannah's Bretzel is a six-unit chain based in Chicago, specializing in sandwiches made with natural and organic ingredients. At Hannah's, "we've previously just used something as simple as a stopwatch to get an idea for how long it takes the customer to move through the line," says operations team lead Andy Power. The Hannah's model includes slicing the meat to order for each sandwich, which obviously adds to the construction time. "We accept the fact that everything has to be sliced to order for each customer," he says. "Nothing can be premade."
The chain overcomes any qualms about speed by the visual appeal of seeing the meat sliced and the sandwich constructed as the patron moves down the line. The fact that a staff member hands the sandwich to the customer before she reaches the register helps eliminate any end-of-line confusion. "Are they supposed to stand somewhere? How are they going to be contacted to know their order is ready?" Power says. "We make it so that from the moment you get to the front of the line, you move on down and once you transact, you're done. You have your food in hand and you're either in our seating area or out the door."
Avoiding end-of-line jam-ups plays a critical role in customer satisfaction, according to Kuczera. "If you bottleneck at the register, people are going to get aggravated. So it's [essential to] have the right number of registers to get people through it so they're not hanging out there."
In the kitchen or on the cooking line, quick turnaround comes down to a matter of steps. "Every step is seconds," says Goodman. "If there's something that can be done in one-half step versus two steps, I'm going to move that widget wherever I need to, so that I only need to take that half-step." Malody agrees, noting that "you see inefficiency of movement constantly because thoughtful arrangement of ingredients on the line has not occurred. If they are thoughtfully managed, the high-volume items and ingredients that go in them should be literally within arm's reach where possible."
Some operations have found that one way to solve the problem of too many steps is through schematics or diagrams for ingredients and tools. The successful way to implement this type of system, Kuczera explains, is to make it an ongoing collaborative effort with input from the kitchen staff to improve efficiency. For example, "while the tongs may have started in one place, someone might say, 'Hey, it's better if you put the tongs on the other side,'" she says. "If something is placed well and efficiently, you'll watch them grab it, prepare it, take it, pass it — done."
Optimally, the process of speeding up food production should start in the design process, long before the foodservice operation even opens. "Too many kitchens are designed before the menu is determined," claims Malady. "It's really backwards. In addition to that, people don't know how to engineer menus to fit what has been designed in the kitchen."
As an example of how a single menu item can affect multiple areas of an operation, Kuczera tells the story of one of her clients, the restaurant Beatrix in Chicago. Earlier this year the restaurant added a hyper-caffeinated, nitrogen-infused "nitro coffee" to its menu. "Beatrix made room in the kitchen for the equipment required to produce it, and room in the walk-in cooler to store the containers in process," she says. "They removed a piece of brewing equipment on the line to accommodate its service to the guest, along with a partial wall, and then created signage to support it."
Any time Hannah's Bretzel considers a menu addition, its impact on the line becomes the first area the chain examines. "How is that new item going to impact the existing set of ingredients? When we're developing our menu items, we structurally and architecturally develop them so they fit into the plan that we have. We get very specific internally because we know that we have a very defined number of places where we can have food items," Power says.
Some smart equipment choices can help turn out quality food faster. Malody points to double-sided grills, which heat proteins on both sides simultaneously, as being a particular time saver, especially when less-trained staff is involved. With these grills, "the cooking time is reduced by less than half and they cut the required skill level [of operation] by less than half," she says. For saving steps, Malody likes the new sauté stations, which feature a chilled ingredient rail raised above the cooking surface.
Rapid cook ovens, some of which combine microwave and convection technologies, also win high marks for fast production. Kuczera, a self-admitted fan of these ovens, says, "If you've ever had a breakfast sandwich, it's made in an oven that has combined technologies. These ovens get you toasted, crispy, hot through to the core [product] with some heat longevity." Additionally, she recommends checking out high-performance fryers or ranges with higher BTUs for faster recovery time.
But no matter the equipment's firepower or how streamlined the kitchen organization, any attempts to provide quicker service become doomed to failure without complete buy-in from the staff. Power calls it "extremely important" for staff to strike a balance between service and speed. "You can serve quickly but you don't have to hurry someone. The way we engineer it is a way that we can serve quickly but not rush the guests," he says. "We never make them feel like we're pushing them out." "Have a 'speed' culture in the restaurant without sacrificing service," says Goodman. "People have two things to spend in your restaurant: money and time. They'd much rather spend money than time."
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises empire, with five company-owned stores in Chicago and a number of licensed outlets in other cities, including Baltimore and Burlington, Vt. The chain specializes in Asian-style steamed buns (or bao), potstickers and rice bowls.Eliminating the middleman is a time-honored method for reducing costs. But, for one chain, eliminating the order taker/cashier leads to faster throughput, operational efficiency and reduced costs. Wow Bao is a multi-unit concept that's part of the
About six years ago, Wow Bao installed electronic ordering and payment kiosks at its company-owned stores. Geoff Alexander, managing partner of Wow Bao, claims that his inspiration for this idea came from using electronic voting machines in the 2008 presidential election. Rather than wait an hour for a paper ballot, he used an electronic machine for the first time. "I went to the machine, pushed the buttons and thought, 'This is really simple. We should be using this in our restaurants,'" Alexander says.
The Wow Bao kiosks are counter-level, touchscreen devices driven by pictures of the menu items. After the customer selects his or her menu choices, the machine offers the option of inserting a debit or credit card for payment. The kiosk gives out an order number and sends the order directly to the kitchen display system for assembly. The customer then proceeds to the counter to pick up the completed order. "Push one button, and you go in and get your food. So the time to order and pick up your food could be 58 seconds," Alexander claims.
The Wow Bao kiosks also offer special menu choices such as vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free dishes, which alleviates the problem of staff not knowing or being able to explain what ingredients are in a particular dish.
While Wow Bao still employs an order taker/cashier for those who prefer the old-school option, the kiosks appeal to today's time-crunched customer, says Alexander. "When you go to the machine, you can be on your phone, you can be listening to your music, you can be checking your email. You just walk up and deal with it.
"We're designing our restaurants now with only one register because we have two kiosks," he adds. "There's been a payroll savings, employee benefit savings, and now there's a build-out savings."
Alexander warns that because an automated system can process orders quicker than a human cashier can, the kitchen can become overloaded if not prepared to handle an increased volume. "All of a sudden, you've tripled your throughput," he says. "You need to be sure that your kitchen can do it."
The kiosks double as selling devices, Alexander says. "Every time you order something, it upsells you to make it into a combo. When you're done, it asks if you're a member of our loyalty program. So we get a higher check average and we increase loyalty to the brand. There are a lot of benefits."