SOS: Designing for Speed of Service

Once thought of as something that applied only to the quick-serve community, speed of service has become just as much of a priority for fast-casual and other segments of the foodservice industry. As a result, designers must strike that delicate balance between speediness and customer service.

"QSRs have traditionally been about how fast you can get your food. With other operators speed of service will be important but it may not always be the most important thing," says Melanie Smythe AIA, CSI, ASQ, founder and principal of Candacity, LLC, a Richfield, Wisc.-based consultancy focused on a combination of foodservice design and business management. "In some instances, creating a leisurely environment, or simply taking the time to say hello and interact with people may be more important. In a fast-casual restaurant where you might wait longer to pick up for your food or have it delivered to your table, there is less expectation for speed. At the same time, however, there is still a lower tolerance for slow service because 'fast' is still in the name.

"One thing people dislike most about restaurants is inaccuracy in their orders," says Smythe. "There's nothing worse than asking to hold the pickles and then driving a mile down the road and finding your sandwich has pickles in it. So, speed of service is important but not at the cost of being inaccurate. During the lunch rush, operators still need to make sure there's enough time built-in for checking orders, whether that means flagging special orders or adding an extra person to the line."

So where does one begin when it comes to designing for speed of service, whether at a quick-serve or fast-casual restaurant? Smythe runs through the steps.

Start with the menu. Determine how many items culinary staff can prepare in advance. What will still taste fresh and have the appearance of being customized in front of the customer? When there is more customization involved, customers tend to be more willing to wait because they know their food is being made fresh for them.

Determine your style of service. Will there be an open assembly line similar to Chipotle? If so, consumers will have a limited number of choices, which cuts down on the time that lapses from the point of order to the point of delivery. Other restaurants, like Noodles and Company, have signature dishes and broader menus and will often employ a semi-exhibition kitchen and ask the customer to take a seat after ordering. In these instances it's important, therefore, to maintain that sense of customization while maintaining speed of service. If a restaurant assembles food behind the scenes, it's important to conduct time studies that incorporate the equipment and steps involved because the assembly line is not a straight line necessarily. When a process involves multiple stations, people and/or steps, be sure to train everyone so they understand their role and the end goal. This will enable everything to work smoothly.

Choose the right POS and ordering system. From a communication standpoint, the POS and how it's set up is important, whether that includes TVs or screens that read out the order at the back of the house or drive thru. The software used needs to clearly show which order is being placed at which computer. If the expectation is to serve the customer in 90 seconds, then the POS system needs to work within that timeframe. At the drive-thru, there needs to be a good quality, audible system between customer and staff so both can hear clearly, which will limit the number of mistakes. Even though improvements have been made in this area, there are plenty of bad systems still out there and that can slow things down.

Set up clear directions and customer flow. Depending on the style of service, the restaurant needs to allow enough space for people to form a line and not feel like they're being corralled like cattle. While the use of railings might be somewhat passé, certain things, like changing floor materials or designating barriers using graphics or walls, can be simple and direct but still feel more upscale. Creating clear flow for customers creates a sense that they're being treated like a person rather than a number. From the outside, examine how your customers see the restaurant from half a mile away — is it clear where to go? Is the parking lot safe and easy to enter? How do you get to the front door? All this ultimately impacts speed of service.

Analyze the flow of food. Think through each step, from order placing to preparation, cooking and fulfillment. It is important to examine waste and how food exits your business. Look at the equipment layout and how long each dish takes to cook. Because footprints keep getting smaller, specifically the amount of space allotted for the kitchen, timing people and looking at a facility's layout can help determine speed of service successes and failures. Important elements to understand include cooking and holding times of meal components and volume by daypart. If the lunch rush runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., be prepared with the right amount of product ready to go close to the preparation area.

Maximize drive-thru and carry-out efficiencies. Pre-order boards highlighting specials can help customers make purchasing decisions before they get to the order window. Operators with curbside pickup or carry-out service can create a specific door for people to enter when picking up their orders. Have clear signs designating certain spots for carry-out parking. Chili's, for example, does a good job at this, treating their carry-out like its own little brand within a brand. Then, operators need to make sure they have enough people to execute at the desired speed of service. Customers placing carryout orders have already decided they don't want to spend the 45 minutes to sit down, order and pay. Train all staff to greet carry-out customers as they enter and help them get to the right place.

Build in time for good customer service. While order takers should work fast, staff should still have enough time to make eye contact with the customer. Good customer service is especially important as the use of technology increases in the ordering system. In some cases you get more interaction in the drive-thru because the server has to look at the customer when handing over the food. It's important to determine ideal speed of service while still treating people like humans.

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