How do foodservice operators balance the right speed of service with the right quality experience at the same time?

Let’s start by acknowledging that prioritizing speed over everything else can kill an experience. Working too fast can compromise food quality and various other aspects of a restaurant experience. On the flip side, though, working too slowly can impact the restaurant’s ability to maximize its sales capacity.

When trying to balance speed of service with experience, operators can start by asking a couple of questions that may help with this dilemma:

  • At what rate of speed does the concept need to move to meet customer expectations and drive more frequent visits?
  • What are the right operating parameters to deliver on this experience?

The answers to the prior two questions will differ, depending on the service category in which you operate and how the customer perceives your foodservice operation.

For example, quick-service restaurants will require faster speed of service than their fast-casual counterparts. Customers might, however, cut QSRs some slack when it comes to quality. For full-service operators, customers expect the speed of service to be slower than fast-casual but higher quality food and service.

That said, realize that speed is definitely important regardless of the segment in which the operator does business. If a foodservice operation can deliver faster service, it should, especially during periods when the guests may be more starved for time, like weekday breakfast and lunch. As operators do this, though, mind the quality of the product, since it represents an important metric and one where the guests will not and should not compromise. Further, guests’ definition of quality has changed drastically over the last few decades, as concepts can now deliver a higher level of quality faster than before. Who would have thought that McDonald’s would offer cooked-to-order items as the burger giant now does with its Quarter Pounder?

Having food items readily available can dramatically impact speed of service. After all, the time to assemble can be pretty quick if staff has easy access to the components. One key service metric is back-of-the-house (BOH) time; the time from when the order comes into the kitchen until the staff delivers the food to the guest. All operators should know their back-of-the-house time. And, more importantly, they should know how the components of this metric break out.

Hypothetical Back-of-the-House Times

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The chart here shows a hypothetical breakdown of BOH times for a full-service concept. These times include reaction time, cook time, assembly time and order packaging or expediting time. Consider that for prepackaged items, except for the expediting time, the other times are 0. Therefore, the more prepackaged/pre-assembled items an operation has, the faster the speed of service. Be careful, though, since pre-assembling, or holding cooked components, can lead to deteriorated food quality. This represents the key dilemma that concepts should strive to balance and solve.

So how does a foodservice operation minimize each kitchen time component?

One way to minimize reaction time is to the have the right labor, in the right place, at the right time to start the order as soon as it arrives in the kitchen. Activity-based labor guidelines can help. These take into account the time to execute the task and the frequency of each task. When developing activity-based labor guidelines, forget how much the operation charges for specific menu items since it does not matter if it sells for $1 or $10. To be true to the labor necessary and ensure minimum reaction time, it is all about the time to do each activity.

Operators should also strive to apply some forecasting techniques for items to ensure staff complete them “just in time” – meaning product is close to ready when the guest orders it. “Fresh off the grill” will deliver the same quality as “fresh onto the grill” but the former will drive significantly faster service times.

Reduce Cook Times

A second key aspect to deliver faster speed of service is applying equipment platforms that reduce cook times. Some examples include speed ovens, clamshell griddles, steamers and the like. What is the right equipment platform for your specific application? What cooking methods will drive faster cook times? Answering these two questions for a specific concept will go a long way in optimizing speed of service.

Along with having the right deployment, a third component to drive better service and quality is to develop the right work stations and have them in the right place (adjacent to each other). To reduce assembly times, foodservice operators need to take into account and analyze each of the steps necessary make the menu item. Minimizing assembly times means making sure the right quantity of components are in the right place. Considering all the motions and applying the right ergonomics, an Industrial Engineering in foodservice technique, will provide the right methodology to develop the most optimum workstations by reducing the inefficient motions.

To deliver the right balance of speed and quality the overall operating design must:

  1. Help minimize reaction time
  2. Have the right labor deployment
  3. Apply the appropriate forecasting (“just-in-time”) technique
  4. Apply the best equipment that enables cooking as fast as possible with the best quality
  5. Have the right workstation designs
  6. Have the right workstation adjacencies to reduce service and quality inefficiencies

I want to close with a couple of key considerations that can help you determine how to balance the speed of service and quality quandary. First, never lose sight of the fact that speed — too slow or too fast — can kill an experience. Operators need to determine the rate of service that guests expect. Second, quality is non-negotiable. Poor food quality can kill a concept, no matter how fast the speed of service.

As with anything in design, the right balance will get you there!