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Self-Serve Beverage Designs Emphasize Efficiency

Well-designed self-serve beverage stations can reduce labor and enhance the customer experience.

With the ongoing labor shortage and customers seeking a more customized foodservice experience, it is no surprise that self-serve beverage stations have become more prevalent. Convenience stores, corporate feeding operations, hotels and universities are some of the many the segments leaning heavily into self-serve beverage service: Some have been for decades.

“These stations can really be anywhere, including in an office setting as a perk for employees, and we’re sometimes seeing it in higher ed,” says Kristin Sedej, president, S2O Consultants, Hawthorn Woods, Ill. “Consumers are becoming more sophisticated in beverage desires, so we’re seeing more of it. Plus, labor is tough, so some operators are looking to transfer this to the customer.”

Self-serve is win-win for operators and customers, says Arlene Spiegel, president, Arlene Spiegel & Associates, New York. “It’s a winning and profitable use of square footage, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all layout.”

Kwik Trip 1065 WW 6Kwik Trip’s L-shaped cold beverage self-serve station includes a traditional fountain machine, tea brewer and frozen uncarbonated slushie machine.

Looking at Logistics

The success of a self-serve beverage station depends on the location, layout and design, notes Eddie Fahmy, president, A2Z Restaurant Consulting, based in Great Neck, N.Y.

Not only is a self-serve beverage station’s location important, so, too, are its adjacencies. “For example, in a corporate cafe with straight serving lines, we wouldn’t put self-serve in the middle of a traffic pattern where salads are being lined up or sandwiches are being made,” Spiegel notes. “Ideally, whether in a c-store, corporate cafeteria or quick-service operation, we want to put these stations away from the main counter and traffic flow.”

Some designs will bundle self-serve beverages with, or next to, the condiment area. “So, when customers leave the food line with their cups, they are confronted with an area that includes napkins, disposable cutlery and [self-serve] beverages,” Spiegel explains. “The first thing [to consider] is separation, as logistically all of the condiments and finishing areas [such as beverages] are remote and away from the ordering and pickup line.”

When designing a self-serve beverage area, consider the flow of the customer’s journey, Fahmy says. “The area where they wait to pick up their order is the space to have the self-service beverage counter. This way, they can fill up their cups while they wait and not be in anyone’s way,” he says.

Filthy Flats 3The self-serve beverage counter at Filthy Flats includes iced coffee, iced tea and pink lemonade. Variations of a self-serve beverage station can impact the logistics. For example, Filthy Flats, a new Brooklyn, N.Y.-based fast-casual concept, has a self-serve beverage counter with hot and iced coffee, iced tea and pink lemonade. Filthy Flats keeps prepackaged soft drinks and other cold beverages in a self-serve cooler. Owner Randy Narod says people prefer to prepare their own coffee drinks. “Although there’s not much to it, the space needs to be in the right spot,” he says. “Ours was built to include the coffee station, area for cold beverages and an ice bin to hold perishable condiments.”

Unlike fast-casual concepts, convenience stores place a greater emphasis on adjacencies when incorporating self-serve beverage stations. Kwik Trip, a La Crosse, Wis.-based chain of 850 stores, uses an L-shaped coffee and cold beverage self-serve station. Visible from the front of the store, the coffee station sits along the back wall and cold self-serve beverages perpendicular to that. The equipment lineup at Kwik Trip’s self-serve beverage stations includes a traditional fountain machine, tea brewer and frozen uncarbonated slushie machine and a traditional brewer and espresso machine for coffee drinks.

Kwik Trip strategically positions bakery cases en route to the beverage lineup. “To get coffee, customers have to walk by the bakery and hot and cold sandwiches,” says Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s foodservice director. “People will walk where needed to access these beverages.”

Two years ago, Kwik Trip launched a new prototype featuring a coffee bar that is larger than in the previous store design. “Our new stores are 9,000 square feet, and the coffee station gained a little space,” Servais says. “Now, in addition to self-serve beverages, our foodservice red zone includes a bakery case, fresh salads and better-for-you options as well as hot food cases with sandwiches, chicken and other prepared foods.”

Kwik Trip’s grab-and-go beverage coolers are on the other side of the self-serve beverage station. “We’re looking to put in more drink options, such as self-serve flavored sparkling water, which is becoming more popular,” Servais says.

The Equipment Lineup

During the design phase, Fahmy typically works with architects to put together equipment schedules. These self-serve beverage areas typically encompass a 13-foot-long counter with a hot water dispenser; a cold bin for milk, creamer and other coffee ingredients; soda machine; ice machine; and garbage receptacle. “Self-service soda machines with ice machines on top are convenient for restaurants with indoor seating,” he says.

Although the equipment lineup for these stations tends to be simple, operators and designers need to weigh several infrastructure considerations. “For example, there are plumbing and electrical requirements, and lines may be needed for soda and ice machines,” Fahmy explains. “We also have to consider drainage and if vacuum breakers are needed to stem water backup.”

Along with ancillary considerations, operators need to take into account equipment capabilities. “From a coffee standpoint, there is a direct correlation between capacity or production and the kilowatts of a machine,” Sedej notes. “There also can be multiple configuration options with coffee machines.

“This area will need refrigeration of some sort,” Sedej adds. “If espresso is self-serve, refrigerated milk is needed on the side with a counter cooler or undercounter refrigeration.

The type of cold beverage system will impact the setup, too. “Is it a bag-in-box system with syrups and carbonators and, if so, where does that go?” Sedej says. “If it’s on the counter, it may need to be changed out, and how do you do this with minimal disruptions? If it’s in the back, conduit under the counter or lines from the bag and box to the dispensing machine will be needed.”

Which ice machine the station uses is important, too. “With ice, operators can have machines that are filled manually over the top of the soda machines or can use an ice maker top,” Sedej says. “Either way, it’s important to be cognizant of the ice maker’s capacity versus the required volume. For example, a dispenser may hold 75 to 100 pounds of ice, but if there’s not a lot of backup storage, it won’t keep up with the necessary volume.”

Ice comes with other logistical issues, particularly when staff may have to fill an ice dispenser sitting up high on top of a soda machine. “It’s not uncommon to have the soda vendor provide ice dispensers, but this requires power and a drain; so you have to coordinate with the soda installer on where to put all the components,” Sedej explains. “Also, machines may have special requirements like water filters or CO2 for sparkling beverages.”

It’s not only important to check utility requirements but also overhead clearances, as soda and ice dispensers can be tall. “If self-service includes a bag-in-box beverage dispenser and the operator doesn’t want an ice maker on top due to space or costs, we’ll put in a big ice maker with a transport cart for manual filling,” Sedej says.

Design the station to meet production goals and to ensure staff do not have to constantly visit the kitchen to restock this area. Hence, it becomes important to assess the station’s storage needs. This may include dispensers for cups, lids, straws, sugar packets and other condiments. “Self-serve is typically in a more remote location, which means it’s furthest away from the back of house; yet items need to be accessible to get through peak periods,” Sedej notes.

Operators need to take stock of the beverage menu, expected volume and rush periods. “In a concession area, a baseball game is different than a football game; both may include the same number of people, but the latter has a half-time break,” Sedej says. “The same is true with c-stores, since mornings are the peak period.”

Other considerations include serving and dispensing vessels. “Trash like straw wrappers and empty sugar packets have to go somewhere,” Sedej says. “You don’t want these laying around the station, but you also don’t want too large of a garbage bin that becomes a general trash receptacle. It’s best to have something with a small opening in this area that’s designated for this station only.”

Beverage container types also will impact this station’s makeup. “Will there be disposable or non-disposable cups? And if non-disposable, think about where people are taking these containers, how they’re going into the kitchen and who’s washing them,” Sedej says. “Consider how you’ll maintain the self-serve program with restocking and cleaning the area.”

Along with equipment, operators should consider signage, as operators should seek to optimize self-serve areas’ real estate.

“You want everyone to know what things are, so it’s important to label everything and make sure it’s in the correct containers to avoid excess waste,” Spiegel says. “With COVID, we’re not seeing pourers and shakers as much as single-serve packets or containers.”

Volume will determine how long and deep the single-serve beverage stations need to be. Timing, too, is a factor. “If someone needs hot water for instant coffee or hot chocolate, this will take 30 to 40 seconds to produce,” Spiegel says. “Depending on the number of people in line, an operator may need two or three of these units. The same is true with equipment that has multiple functions or is time consuming to use. Otherwise, it can create a bottleneck.”

In addition to logistics and adjacencies, don’t forget to assess the counter height. “If it’s too low, it will be awkward for customers,” Spiegel says. “Best practices say counters should be 36 to 40 inches from the ground to the top. Also, from an equipment standpoint, we need to make sure everything is safe, as we don’t want a risk of burns.”

Design Dos

The main objective in designing self-serve beverage stations is to make the area large enough so customers can make their drinks without feeling crowded or getting in each other’s way, Servais says. “People like to mix and match ingredients, and they need room to do it and to feel comfortable,” he adds.

The importance of cleanliness with these stations cannot be overstated. Kwik Trip has its staff set a timer to ensure someone checks the self-serve beverage station every 30 minutes. “All ambient temperature items are stored underneath the station, while cold items are kept in a nearby cooler,” Servais explains. “All store workers wear headsets to communicate what’s needed.”

Filthy Flats 2Creamers and other ingredients are stored in a cold well near Filthy Flats' beverage area.A successful design provides easy access for staff and customers alike. Filthy Flats’ self-serve beverage station includes a refrigerated cold bin that holds different types of creamers, such as hazelnut, vanilla, regular milk and soy milk. These are in large containers so as to avoid the excess trash of single-serve condiments. Customers get their cups at the register. “People have to be able to easily grab what they want,” Narod says. “And when the self-serve area is accessible, there is little maintenance needed.”

Fahmy says the main goal in the design is to get customers in and out quickly and efficiently, while saving labor. “It’s almost like creating a trail; customers come in here, stop there, then go here before leaving,” he says. “If the setup is poor and the station ends up requiring too much labor, you’re backed in a corner. It’s all about creating a great guest experience.”

Typically, a beverage station should have a large enough capacity to handle the busiest shift. “If you’re going through 300 cups, java jackets or stirrers, or have a built-in ice machine, you need enough capacity during rush periods so you don’t have to replenish,” Spiegel says. “If a full spectrum of items cannot be handled, then the menu should be more limited. You may not be able to offer six types of milk for coffee.” She adds that menu engineering and the breadth of product has to do with customer demands and available space. In some cases, less is more.

“Having premium products in a self-serve area should showcase the operation’s brand standards; this is a marketing area,” Spiegel says. “What is on the back wall of this station counts. It’s a place to market meals, provide information on store hours, recruit future employees or promote upcoming events.”

For this reason, she says operators should not overlook the potential for this selling district.

Newer Integrations

Self-serve beverage stations continue to evolve, with technological advancements and beverage trends serving as key drivers. Kwik Trip enhanced its hot beverage program by adding nitro coffee last November. “Nitro is cold coffee, but part of our hot program and rapidly becoming our most popular beverage,” Servais says. “We also will be putting in bean-to-cup units.”

Self-serve beverage areas can benefit from point-of-sale system integration. “Customers can swipe a credit card or use a QR code on their phone to get a glass or cup for automated self-serve,” Spiegel says. “This can be integrated with point-of-sale systems or third-party integration to automatically ring up orders on the back end.”

Bottled beverages continue to head toward frictionless technology in self-serve areas. “[With these systems,] registered customers can walk in, take something out of the cooler, and it is tracked to automatically debit that person’s bank account,” Sedej says.

Ultimately, Sedej adds, for best-in-class self-service beverage station design, it’s best to look at cost, labor, safety, production, long-term maintenance and aesthetics. “Most of all, make sure the self-serve area is very user friendly,” she says.