To Hold or Not to Hold: That is the Question!

Technological advances in hot and cold food holding equipment are changing delivery methods.

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I remember, many years ago, the foundation of a quick-service restaurant's ability to deliver competitive speed of service to its customers meant the chain had to keep products, often completely pre-assembled, in holding bins. Each concept had its own methodology to figure out how much to hold and when to hold it but each equation factored in items sold and how long the restaurant could hold menu items without compromising food quality. It was easy to tell when a QSR's holding pattern was off because the restaurant typically ran out of pre-assembled products and the service tanked.

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Somewhere along the way, most of these concepts moved to a made-for-you or "assembled to order" production system. This change was driven by the desire to increase food quality and allow for product innovation. The more menu options a concept offered, the more difficult it was to maintain holding levels of items that were expected to be sold, since the velocities were so low that food quality was often compromised.

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The advent of the fast-casual category also contributed to more QSRs adopting assembled to order production systems. One way that fast-casual operators sought to differentiate their concepts from QSRs was to drive a higher quality product by producing built-to-order menu items. Clearly made-to-order production systems, where components may be pre-cooked, but final assembly is not done until the customer places an order, represents the prevalent method of production in both quick serve and fast-casual concepts today.

And what helps facilitate the wide-spread adoption of this production method? None other than hot and cold food holding equipment. As you look at the many ways foodservice equipment as a whole has improved over the years, one area that stands particularly tall is the evolution of hot food holding equipment, which does a better job of maintaining quality while holding food safely. A significant level of food and equipment science has been applied to develop equipment solutions that facilitate extended holding times. These solutions apply scientific knowledge that optimizes the thermodynamic balance that has to exist between the food being held and the equipment used. Keep in mind that this is no easy task, since heat is food's friend during the cooking process and quickly becoming its enemy during the holding period.

Just-in-time production represents an extension of holding, too. In the application of pure holding principles, a quantitative calculation of the amount that should be held is done based on the expected sales of any item and the product holding characteristics. In the just-in-time system, as the term implies, the goal is to have the product ready as the customer orders. The goal is to minimize the time the product component is in holding, using the holding equipment more as a transfer point.

In either one of these principles, forecasting, a tool taught in most industrial engineering curriculum, is used to develop the right levels. In the latter, the forecasting methodology used is a bit more sophisticated since it accounts more heavily on the randomness of the order, the product cook cycle, the item holding characteristics and the service dynamic the restaurant wants to deliver. Here is a computer simulation model that was developed to simulate the service aspect of a concept, during a new design. One metric to analyze during the application of this technique is the impact holding levels have on the service customers are receiving and the product quality.

There is a fine line between using a holding system and a transfer system when it comes to the impact to the business. In a pure inventory holding system, the risk is to hold the product too long thereby impacting quality, while in a pure product transfer system the risk is running out of product and impacting sales and/or customer service levels. In either case, optimizing the equipment that is used to maintain the product integrity after it is cooked is critical. Collaboration between equipment suppliers (working side-by-side with product developers to ensure the right product formulation) and concept designers to deliver the best operating system is critical for this balance.

At the balance of this collaboration is the customer hospitality achieved: both service and product quality. So consider the aforementioned thoughts and insights when trying to answer the question "to hold or not to hold?"

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