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Boosting Retail Throughput in Healthcare Foodservice

For today’s healthcare foodservice operator, speed of service has become just as important as food quality. One veteran foodservice consultant outlines five steps that can help non-commercial foodservice operators, including those in the healthcare segment, get their customers through the service lines quicker and back to their busy lives.

As healthcare facilities continue to diversify and broaden their foodservice offerings to earn both business dollars and patient-employee-visitor satisfaction points, they’ve had to rethink certain aspects of their retail cafes.

Lately, everything comes down to throughput.

“Staff members usually only have a half an hour for lunch, tops,” says John Giambarresi, founder and president of Creative Dining Solutions, a foodservice operations and design consultancy based in Wakefield, Mass. “By the time they come down, decide what they want, wait for their hot food, and pay for everything, they only have a very short time to sit down and eat before having to get back to work.”

While better quality and customizable food has served as enough of a draw for the past few years, now speed of service continues to emerge as a driving factor. Providing both staff and patients with higher quality food in a timelier manner has never been more important, particularly with food trucks often parking outside the doors of a healthcare facility.

Here are five ways healthcare foodservice operators can increase speed of service without compromising food quality.

Step 1: Improve Scatter Designs

“The first way to tackle throughput is through design,” says Giambarresi. Even scatter systems, the servery design of choice for most healthcare facilities these days, need to be streamlined in order to handle potential lines and waits at the grill, pizza and other hot food stations as more food is being prepared to order.

“I try to design scatter systems more in waves and curves than in sharp angles,” he says. That way, customers can enter at different places and see the entire servery from any angle while still having the option of visiting various places at different times.

Even salad bars need ample space around them to prevent backlogs. Sometimes placing busier grill and other entrée action stations in more central locations will allow more space for lines to wrap during busier periods. In contrast, placing these stations in a straight line formation along a back wall can lead to lines from one station running into the other.

Giambarresi also places menus throughout the space so customers have multiple decision-making points, and signage with clear directions also helps funnel people through the space.

Completing the transaction plays a critical role in moving customers through a servery in the most expedient manner possible. For those operations that have meal plans attached to the employee badges, Giambarresi creates a checkout lane where they can simply scan their IDs and get on with their days. He has also added a cash-only checkout lane. Adding scales at the salad bar rather than at the checkout can also cut down on time, though it requires some honesty, Giambarresi says.

Step 2: Create More Versatility

Designing for flexibility and versatility at each station can also help improve throughput over the long haul.

More healthcare facilities now choose induction burners that staff can move or store to accommodate menu changes. During busy times, staff can designate one induction burner for cooking and finishing smaller batches of food, and another one for holding at the serving line that’s just been prepared.

“Preparing some of the food in front of the customer and putting it off to the side where they can quickly grab it still signals that the food is fresh, while cutting down on wait times,” Giambarresi says. “Special burgers or other foods can still be made to order if they’re willing to wait a little longer.”

Ample undercounter refrigeration at the action stations ensures staff members have all they need to cook food quickly, without having to stop and retrieve or prep additional items. And multi-use equipment can support a diverse menu demanding faster cook times. A combi-oven, for example, can bake fries one minute and roast vegetables the next.

“The idea is to have fewer stations but more flexibility and more staff at each [one] to keep the food moving,” Giambarresi says.

Step 3: Study Station Activity

Studying station activity and sales goes hand in hand with flexible design.

“Prior to designing the stations, I run a three-month track record of sales so I know how many sandwiches and which kinds were sold, and then build in that space according to the volume,” he says. If the business is predominantly made-to-order sandwiches, make sure that station has the most space, the most equipment and the most staff.

Even though many healthcare facilities wrestle with staffing budget and needs, it’s important to at least designate one manager to have some visual supervision of the busy stations and be able to jump in and help when necessary, or move staff around accordingly.

“The worst thing you can do is have 10 stations in your cafeteria and only staff 5 of them,” says Giambarresi.

Step 4: Build in More Self-Service

Moving self-service beverage, condiment and paper goods stations to the seating areas helps maintain space and flow in the servery. “This prevents people from bottlenecking near the cashier lines,” Giambarresi says.

Also, consider removing beverages from the cups, straws and more. “You don’t want cream and sugar right next to the coffee station where 20 people are trying to fix their cup all at once,” he says. “Sometimes people will sneak a little more soda or coffee if the beverage stations are located outside the cashier line, but with high profit margins on beverages, the foodservice operator can afford to budget for those issues. It’s a perk for employees and customers so you just adjust prices accordingly.”

Step 5: Integrate Mobile and Online Technology

Integrating technology like mobile, online and/or kiosk ordering can help set up the kitchen for multiple orders before the customers have a chance to queue up in person and cause bottlenecks.

“You can place kiosks adjacent to the cafeteria or even throughout other parts of the hospital so people can order their food before even coming through the doors,” says Giambarresi. Many healthcare faculties also allow customers to place orders at their computers or on their phones through a company Intranet that will then send the order straight to the kitchen.

To support online ordering, Giambarresi will recommend adding a separate pick-up line for online orders to prevent back-ups at the in-person ordering lines. It’s possible to even separate those pick-ups further, into cold and hot item lines. Staff can pre-package cold items once the customer places the order. Having a separate pick-up line for online orders also helps prevent last-minute customers from feeling like they’ve been “cut” in line.

Newer mobile platforms, however, will even show a customer’s order place in line, so they can make a trip to the salad bar or beverage station while they wait for the order to be called.

As a foodservice consultant, Giambarresi makes it his job to make sure these online and mobile ordering platforms integrate with POS and kitchen operations to further study sales and activity and make even more tweaks to kitchen design, equipment and operations.

Welcome to the next generation of healthcare retail foodservice.