Keeping the foodservice equipment marketplace up to date with the latest menu and concept trends.


The Intricacies of Customer-Facing Makelines

Logistics guide efficiency, speed of service and design

functional Jersey Mikes Team 1Jersey Mike’s keeps pans full on its front makeline. The chain stores backup product in a nearby walk-in.Customer-facing makelines offer a number of advantages and a few challenges. It’s the customer experience that takes precedence, and these stations provide the benefit of customization, proof of freshness and speed of service.

“It’s a control thing, and [this setup] appeals to customers on multiple levels,” says David B. Hammersley, principal at TBCI Design, Bradenton, Fla. “When it’s executed well, people are more likely to visit regularly.”

Yet, the look customer-facing makelines give guests into the process of making their food brings added pressure to keep the area organized, clean and appealing. Consequently, operators should take into account efficiency, logistics and speed as well as equipment and supplies best suited for each task when designing customer-facing makelines. This is true, no matter what the concept.

“Burrito assembly, juice bars, sub shops and poke bowl shops have similarities in that the customer flow can dictate the operational support and vice versa,” says Ed Viser, principal, Cafe Design & Architecture, Maricopa, Ariz. “Operational layout 101 is everything behind the counter that supports the menu needs to be accomplished without employees crossing paths.”

The biggest challenge is not in the actual design, but in keeping the makeline clean and filled with fresh ingredients, says Brent Hall, principal/president, Clevenger Associates, Puyallup, Wash. “Customers want to see fresh items in an organized fashion,” he says. “This station should provide speed of service, while marketing through the display.”

Effective Lineups

Designers agree that refrigerated tables represent the most critical component, along with dry storage like shelving for disposable bowls, cutlery, recyclables/disposables and serving ware. “Slicing and food processing are generally handled in the back of house, so there’s typically no prep equipment on the customer-facing makelines,” Hall notes.

Some chains opt to bring back-of-the-house functions, like slicing meat, to the front. Such is the case with Jersey Mike’s, where store staff utilize a meat slicer at the start of its front-facing makeline. Customers order at the slicer before moving on to the sprinkle board for choosing toppings and then to the sandwich wrapper station before checking out.

“Customers can choose how they want their meat sliced and what toppings they prefer: The setup creates banter in the store, and the customer sees their sandwich being made,” says Caroline Jones, senior vice president, Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc., Manasquan, N.J. “Our stores are deep, but not wide. When there is width, we can situate our front makelines on either side of the meat case.”

Also visible at Jersey Mike’s is a grill on the back wall right behind the front makeline that’s used for hot sub ingredients. The chain places the grill not in front of customers but along the back wall because this piece of equipment “requires a big hood for ventilation,” Jones says.

Each Jersey Mike’s location has two makelines — one that faces customers and another that runs parallel behind it that is designated solely for digital orders. This second makeline was added to the spec in 2018 due to an influx of online orders.

“The front line is where employees are facing customers, while staff working the back line have their backs facing customers,” Jones explains. “We try to make the back line as big as the front line, but in some locations it may be smaller if there’s not enough space.”

While the front line pulls meats out of an adjacent deli case, the back makeline utilizes refrigerated drawers for storage. Walk-ins are used for bulk storage. “Otherwise, there are no other equipment differences between these two lines,” Jones says. Both stations include a slicer, refrigerated drop-in wells for toppings, a cutting board and knife.

“Most toppings, like tomatoes and onions, are prepped in the morning, except pickles, which come presliced,” Jones says. “Backup prepped product is kept in a walk-in.”

Chipotle also has a front makeline facing customers as well as one behind it for digital orders. “We ironed out our customer-facing makeline in the early days. It’s laid out very efficiently and is operator friendly,” says David Vilkama, Chipotle’s vice president of construction and design. “[With these stations], it’s all about throughput, speed and accuracy. Most importantly, customers can eat with their eyes and see how fresh ingredients are.”

Chipotle typically has four staff members working the digital order line. “We do prep from 5 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., washing, cutting, prepping, then get ingredients into hot and cold wells,” Vilkama says. “Ingredient bins are filled in the morning, and we continually prepare proteins. Because we do crazy throughput, we’re replenishing bins throughout the day.”

Even with three to four ingredient bins stored beneath the prep table, Chipotle staff may perform another round of prep in the afternoon. Vilkama says the setup is not complex. “But some of the simplest stations are the most complex to design,” he notes.

The chain discovered this while innovating its back makeline for digital orders, which now comprise between 30% to 50% of sales, depending on the store. “This brought us unique challenges, as we worked with partners to look at technology and automation to reimagine the makeline,” Vilkama explains.

Unlike the front makeline, Chipotle’s digital makeline has incorporated automation technology to shorten its length, so it can be added in more kitchens. The equipment stems from Chipotle’s 2022 investment in a platform designed to automate kitchen operations, specifically digital orders.

“This system is designed to crank out digital orders quicker and more accurately,” Vilkama says. “Because it’s not as long as customer-facing makelines, and it’s wider and deeper, there is more room in front of the pans to make orders. There also is room for digital screens that show the orders, so staff isn’t having to move down the line as much.”

Customer-facing makelines are not just comprised of slicing, topping and wrapping stations. “There is typically a point of sale station at the end of the line,” Hall says. “And there may be [self-serve grab-and-go] display cases on the customer side for chips, cookies and beverages.”

Enhancing Functionality

The goal with customer-facing makelines is to present the menu offerings in a clean and appetizing way. “The idea has always been to show customers the product and assemble a plate or beverage; many brands use this process,” Viser says. “Important to the staff operation is assuring by design that customers walk into the space and know what is offered and where to queue up.”

It’s the entire traffic flow, from the entry point to the front makeline, that is important to operators. “Customers should understand what’s available and clearly see the options,” Viser says.

Viser prefers food shields with shelves for storage on top and different size prep tables, including deeper versions with a cutting board, behind the line. Ancillary equipment is minimal, with a hand sink, rinser, dipper wells and storage for bowls, cups and other accessories that are standard parts of any customer-facing makeline. A built-in counter utilizing hot and cold food holding can offer a higher design element rather than some standard roll-in equipment.

“Customers want to see a clean environment with full pans of product,” Viser says. “As they move down the line, everything gets built, they get their drinks and pay. If they are moving left to right, you may have prep tables, then hot food, a cold food table and serving ware, napkins and drinks. The POS is at the end.” He likes to incorporate an undercounter grab-and-go refrigerated unit, with a counter on top and reach-in refrigeration space for beverages.

“The menu drives the design and level of preparation that gets done in front of the customer,” Hammersley says. “It’s not just about the cold side, which is the easy part with refrigerated pans and sneeze guards. The hard part is the hot side.”

Where many concepts used to utilize hot steam wells for holding menu items, there has been an influx of cooking to order. “More operators are doing concepts where customers can see the cooking process, which emits fire, smoke and steam,” Hammersley says.

“We did a pizza concept in New England that used a tray slide with induction that started the cooking process while toppings and sauce were added,” Hammersley notes, adding that the person preparing the pie never lost contact with the customer. “Before this, we tried putting ingredients on a heated stainless-steel surface, then moved to cast iron. We tested all kinds of methods until it was perfected.”

The concept ran for about a year, before the operator changed and the induction system was removed. “It was a great idea, but not many people are doing it,” Hammersley adds.

“We also did a taco concept where tacos were heated on the front makeline using a flat griddle,” Hammersley adds. This didn’t come without challenges, as most cooking equipment requires a hood. “It’s tricky, as you need to determine if there will be cooking or just heating,” he explains. “If the process isn’t releasing enough particulate into the air, a hood may not be required.”

Equipment Innovations

Today’s equipment innovations have helped increase the flexibility and efficiency of customer-facing makelines.

“A new way of holding is with hot and cold wells that are convertible for added convenience,” Hall says. “It provides versatility for operators to change menus.” He adds that undercounter refrigeration has become a part of sandwich and prep tables, with additional refrigeration for backup product in the kitchen.

“Subway uses glass lids over cold well openings so customers can see fresh veggies,” Hall says. “There are lids that lift up to become food shields, and UV-bonded food shields are a new option. These are like glass boxes with no hinges, posts, brackets or hardware that look very clean and seamless for marketing ingredients.”

With Chipotle’s second makeline, digital orders aren’t interfering with in-store business. “[Depending on the volume], employees can switch between the front and back makelines if one is busier than the other,” Vilkama says. “It won’t impact the other line, and both lines have the same ingredients.”

The same cannot be said for the equipment, however. Chipotle added a tortilla press to its back makeline when it launched the hand-crafted quesadilla in March 2021 for digital orders only; its fajita quesadilla was introduced this past March. “For these products, which are exclusive to our digital menu, we added a speed oven directly across from the digital makeline,” Vilkama says.

New cooking technology is increasingly being incorporated into customer-facing makelines, which expands the functionality of these stations. “Ovens that combine convection, microwave and impingement heat for rapid cooking [are being utilized more behind the scenes],” Hammersley says. “Heat is being driven in a precise pattern, along with convection technology, to drive heat into the products without destroying the food.”

Rapid cooking that uses impingement heat and is ventless is another option for behind these makelines, Hammersley adds. “It is quick, operator friendly and doesn’t require a hood,” he explains. “But it’s best to avoid actual cooking in front of customers, as it’s too difficult to pull off without hazards.”

Because ovens block customers’ view of the makeline, these are prohibitive and best situated behind the scenes. “It can be difficult getting operators to understand cooking needs to be accomplished behind the line due to ventilation requirements and the oven size,” Hammersley says. “We may someday get into technology where individual portions can be made on these lines, but in the meantime we’ll see more ventless cooking and induction.”

Along with cooking, there is opportunity for prep to make its way to the front makeline.

“One juice bar concept put a three-compartment sink in front that automatically washes vegetables,” Viser says. “It’s neat when customers can see the veggies tumbling around. It’s a showpiece.”

But it’s important not to lose sight of what makes a customer-facing makeline unique. “The point of front makelines is quick service and showing off product to exhibit freshness,” Viser says.