Keeping Kitchens Humming

By Lisa Terry | March 10, 2008

A well-managed kitchen with a seasoned staff can be an operational wunderkind. At Bone Daddy's House of Smoke, a three-unit Texas BBQ chain, the kitchen has been known to pound out $10,000 in lunch sales in one four-hour shift.

So when that crew's sales see a significant lift, it's clear there is something going on. The rollout of Virtual Kitchen Systems' Kitchen Operations System (www.kitchenoperationssystem.com) "probably has given us a five percent increase in sales, just on the tables turning more quickly," says Mike Leatherwood, owner. "There could be additional sales because people are not walking out the doors or because food quality is better at the table."

Bone Daddy's solution is among an array of technologies being tapped to streamline kitchen operations, together with communication systems, menu cards and timer systems. Turning out orders hot, fresh, fast and accurate can have significant bottom-line impact. But it's essential to match the solution to the environment and ensure buy-in from staff.

Operators who have successfully streamlined their kitchen operations have experienced these impacts:

  • Getting everyone on the same page. Communications breakdowns are where many operations lose steam. Hashim Lakhany, franchisee of several Houston-area Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits, wanted to head off two common problems: customers changing orders or bag fillers being unsure who is responsible for what order. Popeye's deployed a solution from Revention (www.revention.com) including three display screens visible to cashiers, cooks and baggers. "Because they can change and communicate [about orders], we ensure orders are made to spec," says Lakhany. Communication is also the central focus at Fatz Cafe, a southeastern casual chain. Wait staff, bussers and managers are linked via watch-like communicators to kitchen staff and devices on guest tables using a solution from ESP Systems (www.espsystems.net). Staff can signal the system at every juncture: when the guests enter, when they're seated, and upon ordering, food ready, food out, etc., so they can head off problems and guests can signal when they have a need. "It streamlines guest service at the table and at the operations level," says John Mathiason, operating partner at Fatz's Charlotte, N.C., location. Guests receive food faster and average stays are down to about 45 minutes. "Satisfaction improves by at least 15 percent and sales increase by at least 10 percent to 15 percent" when a Fatz location rolls out the technology; so far 10 use ESP.
  • Eliminating potential for confusion. Moving orders from printers to screens isn't a panacea. Screens must be set up to suit each station's unique needs. At Bone Daddy's, six Logic Controls (www.logiccontrols.com) displays use words to show orders, while screens at boil and fry stations use pictures. "It's easy to look up - the screen shows how many slabs of ribs or burgers to cook," says Leatherwood, and it also helps where language is an issue. Some non-picture screens include previews of upcoming tickets to enable cooks to start the prep process, cutting cook times. Popeye's assigns bag fillers to a specific cashier and displays that cashier's name with the order, so it's always clear who is responsible for what task. A simple user interface and easy reporting is also key to effective usage, Lakhany adds. At 7 Cedars Casino (Sequim, Washington), some stations see all of the order on the resort's Posera Maitre'D (www.matiredpos.com) solution, while others see partial orders, depending on what's required, says Don Dowdle, IT manager.
  • Tackling exceptions. An important use of communication solutions is to notify kitchen staff of changes before the item is cooked or bagged. Cooks at Fatz Cafe can instantly reach servers with questions, so orders aren't held up. 7 Cedars staff uses Posera's "on the fly" modifiers and order hold-and-fire functions to ensure precise orders and timing.
  • Focusing on end results. Getting a complete order out fast is the end goal; a good kitchen management system guides prep and cooking processes to make that happen. "We tell the computer how long it takes to prepare each item and it does two major things," says Bone Daddy's Leatherwood: calculate when to cook each item based on what takes longest, and prioritize orders. "Instead of a ticket sitting and waiting its turn just because it's behind an order that takes 18 minutes, we can [push it ahead and] knock 18 minutes off of table time. We can potentially increase sales 3 percent to 5 percent."
  • Gaining expertise, not just technology. "We wanted not just a tool, but knowledge and expertise from the solution provider to really implement with best practices," says John Townsend, VP of corporate services for Islands Restaurants. QSR Automations (www.qsrautomations.com) advised an older location to share a larger screen between stations and used the solution to help identify and eliminate inconsistencies among locations. Ticket times are down 10 percent to 15 percent and problem pays (make-goods for incorrect orders) are down 10 percent to 15 percent. No operation can reap these benefits unless the chosen solution is a true fit for the environment. Virtual Kitchen worked wonders at Bone Daddy's, but an earlier iteration didn't for another concept, Razoo's, due in part to a complex menu; Leatherwood still has plans for a rollout at a new Razoo's. Fatz's communicators work because the staff soft-pedals the tech angle with guests and plays up the convenience factor. "If you're at a point in your sales volume where you feel tweaking something in the kitchen might give you an advantage, it's certainly worth looking into," Leatherwood says.


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