Foodservice by Design

Team members from PROFITALITY discuss how industrial engineering can be applied to the foodservice industry.

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How Minding Reaction Time can Improve Speed of Service

Speed of service represents a metric all foodservice concepts want to improve.

Not only does it drive better customer satisfaction and repeat business, it also has a significant impact on the resources operators require. Improving speed of service in a drive-thru, for example, will have a direct relationship on throughput. Overall, improving speed of service when both drive-thru and dine-in service is available significantly impacts the space an operation needs to accommodate both sets of guests. Every second counts, especially when an operation can save even the smallest amount of time during peak periods.

It is no news that COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior, including how customers like to get their food. Most concepts with drive-thrus have seen their customers favor this form of service more than dine-in service. In many cases, operators see 70% of their revenues coming from the drive-thru. But when you look closely at the numbers and analyze what happens on a half-hour basis, you will see that during the peak half hours of the day the split between customers opting for drive-thru service compared to walk-in service is much tighter. Oftentimes at noon and at 6 p.m., usually peak periods for most concepts, the split between drive-thru and those ordering in the dining room can be as tight as 55% to 45%.

In fact, it’s often the closest it will be for the entire day. That’s why even though an operation may derive 70% of its revenue from the drive-thru, the design needs to reflect a business that has a revenue split of 55% drive-thru to 45% dine-in to accommodate peak periods.

Part of the reason this happens is due to the high volume and throughput limitations of the drive-thru channel during peak periods. When customers see a long queue in the drive-thru and the restaurant’s interior seems less congested, guests are more likely to come inside. Once the guests enter the facility, operators need to have the space to accommodate those people across a variety of functional spaces, including registers, the waiting area, condiments, self-serve drinks, table tending and cleaning, etc.

Improving speed of service can do many things but it can definitely help with the following two:

  • Reduce the incidence of guests changing their minds on how they originally wanted their food because of long queues at drive-thru.
  • Reduce the additional resources needed inside the restaurant to accommodate the increase in walk-in business that happens during peak periods.

How can an operation improve speed of service?

Operators can opt to adjust many factors when trying to improve speed of service. One area operators should never tinker with, though, is food quality. In fact, one often unintended consequence of improving speed of service is enhancing food quality. This occurs, in part, due to more balanced production within the different stations. In most cases when an imbalance in production time exists, items will wait on each other, which leads to decreasing food temperatures and quality of the product when the guest receives it.

In short, a kitchen will only be as fast as its longest item’s cook time. Factor in the reaction time it takes to start cooking the product and the process only gets longer. Operators can always add more equipment but typically that’s not the issue slowing cook times. Adding more labor represents another option but it’s not a readily available or affordable resource these days. Outside of those two options, operators will need to look at their processes to help improve speed of service.

Unless an operation decides to hold product or change the ingredients in some way, there’s little that can be done to change the cook time. Operators can do plenty, though, about reaction time. Splitting the process of how staff create products can help enhance reaction time. For example, if a burger patty takes 3 to 5 minutes to cook and assembling the remainder of the set up takes 30 to 40 seconds, the priority should be on loading the patties as soon as they show up. Operators can delay the start of the setup by up to 4 minutes and still be able to meet the 5-minute minimum speed of service.

During a busy period or when staff is tied up with other activities that lead to a 2-minute delay in dropping the patties, the fastest the operation will be able to deliver that order is seven minutes. This scenario highlights the importance of creating a push vs. pull system for production. In this case, the grill station should be the first to have access to the order information. If burgers are the core item in the menu, then set up the process around that item. If supporting items have a longer cook time, they can significantly impact not only speed of service but on the complexity of the kitchen operations.

Having a product take longer, even if it’s not ordered frequently, will cause all other items in the order to wait after being assembled, and all other orders to find their way around that order. This adds complexity to a back of the house already dealing with a lot of information and pressure to keep everything flowing. Now staff need to remember some items are waiting for additional ingredients or steps in order to be expedited. Even if an item is low in the product mix, say less than 10%, it would be important to determine how this food item affects the order configuration. The menu item in question may be less than 10% of the items ordered but if it shows up on 30% of the total orders the impact is very significant.

There are a few options to help mitigate this impact:

  • Create a transfer station. If the product is sold enough times, a process can be created where the team has 1 or 2 already cooked so that you are pulling as you sell and replenish the transfer quantity.
  • Figure out a way to prioritize the cooking of long cook-time items. Some concepts call it out to the back when being ordered so that cooks can skip the queue of items and get it started sooner.

The best way to improve speed of service is to mind the reaction time. This reduction can have impact in many different areas of the restaurant, throughput, resources, guest satisfaction, and many more.