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


Leveraging Foodservice Labor in a Postrecession Economy

Doing more with fewer employees is not a passing fad for foodservice operators. As a result maximizing staff efficiency requires getting the most from an operation's foodservice equipment package.

A year or two ago it was easy for the leaders of foodservice operations to use the recession to rationalize cutting jobs, salaries, pensions, benefits and more. While business conditions are improving for foodservice operators, challenges such as rising food costs still remain. As a result, operators continue to look for opportunities to maximize efficiencies because today doing more with less is the name of the game.

In an industry constantly struggling with recruitment and retention, foodservice operators need to invest wisely in their employees and they need to get the best possible return from that investment. "When you maximize labor rather than reduce labor across the board, staff is happier and servers can spend more time with guests," says Ignacio Goris, founder and president of Labor Guru, a labor management and operations consultancy. "That helps the operator build more top line sales rather than just cutting from the bottom line."

Staggered Service

"When trying to maximize labor it is important to determine the service goal and then set a target level for productivity per hour," says Goris. "Then, based on projected sales, you can determine how many people you need per day and then per hour or per half-hour."

One way of doing this is to use a staggered shift approach to staff scheduling rather than allocating staff by the a.m. and p.m. shifts, Goris says. When using a staggered approach, one worker may come in at 8 a.m. to open the restaurant, followed by another employee at 10 a.m. and then a few more at approximately 11 a.m. when service ramps up for lunch. Then when the lunch rush slows down, the staff member who came in first can leave while others may stay to do prep work or help open for dinner.

"If you stagger, you can work with a combination of full-timers, part-timers and seasonal help," Goris says. "This way you keep everyone happy and meeting their hours." This can keep the staff operating at a high level of productivity and allow operators to spend less on labor overall because they're not having to ramp up any one person's hours.

Better Trained Staff

Training staff across multiple disciplines can also help maximize labor. This can mean training cooks to work different stations in addition to prep work, and training servers how to host or even manage other staff.

Challenges arise in this case, however, when there is a high rate of employee turnover, making excess training useless.

For some companies, offering added incentives and benefits helps with employee retention. Starbucks, for example, provides healthcare benefits for its employees. "Restaurants have to build those benefits into their business model, and many operators often do not generate the type of margins that allow for this," Goris says. Still, the better employees are treated, the longer they'll stay and more productive they'll be, he continues. "It's not a matter of can we afford it, but should we afford it."

Streamlining Design

"When we go into a concept we don't just measure labor, we also figure out how to streamline processes," Goris says. "Is there any wasted motion, movement or spaces?" Even traditional restaurants can benefit from taking a more scientific design approach rather than a pure culinary one.

Juan Martinez, founder of Profitality, uses a similar assembly-like design philosophy. Martinez starts by analyzing the 5 "P's" of an operation: procedure and processes (following the product through its various cooking and serving processes), platforms (equipment and technology), place (layout and design), and the people (staff). "All these elements need to work in tandem," he says.

"Aside from food costs the second highest cost in an operation is labor," Martinez says. "Watch what your labor does. Where are they going, are they crossing each other, getting in each other's way? Is someone waiting on someone else all the time?" It's all about removing kitchen bottlenecks one by one.

Then, let's say the operations has three employees in the back of the house and one person is busy 100 percent of the time, while the two other staffers are busy 32 percent of the time, that's a case where a staggered shift, or reassignment to prep work or other duties might be appropriate. "You need to watch what people are doing and spread your labor evenly across the day and kitchen," Martinez says.

Keeping menus and processes simple also helps maximize labor. "You don't want a concept that's so complicated the typical workforce cannot execute it," Martinez says. Take a simple chicken sandwich, for instance. "As soon as the order goes through, the bun needs to toast in 30 seconds and the sandwich may take six minutes to cook while the fries only take three minutes. If the systems aren't set up right, the bread will wait five minutes and the fries will get cold. You have to have an ordering system set up so each of those items come in just time."

Efficient Equipment and Technology

Using equipment that can speed up cooking or perform multiple functions in one unit can streamline kitchen processes with limited labor. Some dual-sided grills can cook burgers in 90 seconds, which can be very helpful if increasing speed is a goal for the foodservice operator.

And combi-ovens because can steam, slow-roast, and bake in one place can expand menu options they can save on both space and labor at the same time.

LCD screens for ordering rather than traditional ticketing has become more commonplace, says Martinez. "The trend is to have some sort of communication LCD system in the kitchens now." Many of these systems can perform expediting and timing functions as well.

And at the front-of-the-house, iPads and smart phones are encroaching on outdated POS systems. With the average age of staff members in their early twenties, technologies like these are nothing new, and in fact, they're used in everyday activities.

"Front-of-the-house staff in particular are really embracing the online scheduling programs and other technologies," Goris says. "Kitchen staff is still a little slow to adopt these. They're a little older and they've been in restaurants for more years so it's harder to embrace changes."

As technology continues to improve each year at rapid speed and more applications become commonplace in restaurants and other foodservice operations, maximizing labor and training will increasingly become a requirement for success.