Speed vs. Service

By Bradley Schmidt, Assistant Editor | July 01, 2007

At Fred's Place, a line of eight people stand at the door signaling the start of the evening dinner rush.

One man is there to place an order to-go and will wait at the counter while his meal is prepared. A group of five is there to celebrate a birthday and will be sitting down for beverages, appetizers, entrees and dessert. As for the remaining couple, he's really hungry and will have dinner while she had a late lunch and is thinking about something small -- perhaps a salad -- but would like it served at the same time as her hungry companion. After all are seated, three additional orders have come in for curbside pickup (two phoned in and one ordered online), all of which must be ready within half an hour.

This is just another day in the life of Fred's Place, a fictional fast casual eatery having a life-like experience. The fast casual niché by nature is one of flexible boundaries. Some emphasize speed and seek to quickly serve food so guests may sit down and enjoy the atmosphere. These establishments may have an element of self-service with staff circulating to check on customers.

Others emphasize service and employ waiters that lend a white table air to the restaurant. But in both incarnations, and all others in between, fast casual restaurateurs must maintain the speed-service balance.

On the speed end of the spectrum, there remains the element of made-toorder food, and a more expansive inventory, emphasizing the differentiation between fast casual and quickservice, where menus may be more limited and food is pre-prepared. On the service end of the spectrum, wait staff accompanies rapidly prepared food to meet customer expectations.

In the middle of all of this sits the point-of-sale system. Whereas the fast casual concept, food or service bring people in the door and keep them coming back, the POS acts as the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the players and holding speed and service in the delicate balance necessary to keep things running efficiently and smoothly.

While the fast casual segment is a diverse one, a look at two brands -- Forklift Brands and Mangia Bene, Inc. -- illustrates the principles core to a fast casual POS and in turn the establishment's success.

Speed through flexibilty Mangia Bene, Inc., is a restaurant management group that owns and operates the Bravo! Italian Restaurant and Bar, the Broad Street Baking Company and Sal & Mookie's New York Pizza and Ice Cream Joint concepts. Jeff Good, managing partner, has a unique perspective when it comes to understanding the fast casual POS.

When Mangia Bene opened its first Sal & Mookie's location just several months ago in Jackson, Mississippi, the company had what it thought was a firm grasp on POS configuration, having recently standardized its Bravo! and Broad Street locations on the Digital Dining (www.menusoft.com) platform working with their support group, Rapid Retail Solutions (www.rapidretailsolutions.com). And yet Mangia Bene found that expected needs changed by the end of the first week. According to Good, changes were made to numerous menu items including side orders, drink modifiers and the routing of food items to kitchen stations, all in an effort to perfect workflow and process customer orders as quickly as possible, paying a heavy nod to the speed end of the equation.

"Flexibility is key" in fast casual, says Good. "If the POS we selected wasn't flexible and easy enough for us to program, we would have been unable to do this or at the mercy of our dealer." Jennifer Martinez, director of IT for Forklift Brands, owner and operator of the Go Roma Italian Kitchen and Boudin Bakery concepts, agrees with Good, citing a robust modifier system as crucial to time management in the fast casual environment.

"Between our two concepts we've been able to customize all of our modifiers," Martinez says. "The goal is to make the process as quick as possible.

It takes time to set up new menu items, but once the process is complete, the throughput at the register is so much faster and it eliminates errors in the kitchen."

Service from your kitchen Most restaurant IT executives would agree that one of a point-of-sale system's most important tasks in ensuring the speed of order processing is its ability to efficiently route orders to the kitchen, or communicate effectively with a kitchen routing system. But in some cases, the best way to transmit those orders is still up for debate.

For Forklift's Martinez, paper is passé. "We implemented a kitchen display system which is traditionally characteristic of QSR operations. We found that by having a paperless kitchen, we save 10-20 seconds per ticket -- time that was once spent looking at, preparing and organizing tickets," she says.

Good disagrees, touting the role of the expediter -- the individual that ensures that food gets to wait staff in a timely fashion, so that everyone sitting at a particular table is served simultaneously -- in ensuring that food timing matches up. "We use traditional station tickets at all of our concepts," explains Good. "We make all orders a la minute (to order) from scratch. Hot items have longer preparation times than a cold sandwich or salad. To this end, it is imperative that the expediter calls tickets in such a fashion that ensures guest orders come together hot, fresh and correct."

Martinez recognizes the limitations of kitchen display systems and readily admits that many Forklift sites prefer ticketing systems because peak hour customer volumes necessitate seeing a larger number of orders than kitchen displays allow. However, Forklift prefers the kitchen displays and has devised a system it believes meets the needs of even the busiest franchise. "So that the kitchen is not limited to eight to ten orders per screen, we've bought 17" screens and made the tickets smaller," Martinez details. "We've also implemented two different screens, one for eat-in orders and one for to-go orders. You see double the amount of orders and organizing them by order type facilitates packaging because the act of wrapping up an eatin order is much different than a to-go order.

" Martinez also notes the critical role of the expediter, indicating that while the expediter sees the entire order load, he or she only allows the kitchen to see a few orders at a time so as not to overwhelm staff.

Order flexibility

As important as the means by which orders are brought to the kitchen is the ability of the POS to take orders of all kinds, especially online and curbside ordering, which are becoming increasingly important in the fast casual market.

"I know for a fact that curbside is going to be a huge player in the next few years," predicts Martinez. "People are really catching on to the convenience of being able to call ahead or order online and pick up hot, fresh orders on their commute home without having to leave the car."

To take advantage of this trend, when Forklift standardized its concepts on Micros Restaurant Enterprise Series 3700 (www.micros.com), they stipulated that the system have call-ahead functionality and that the POS be able to hold those orders and send them to the kitchen at an appropriate time in the future.

"The last thing we want to do is have to remember to make something that was ordered one to two hours ago for pickup, so we have the system remember it for us," Martinez explains. "We are able to input an order and know that it will be fired ¬ number of minutes before the person walks in. The order enters seamlessly into the workflow."

When it comes to online ordering, Mangia Bene isn't interested. "We eschew online ordering. Fax ordering is enough of a demon in our world. To best accommodate a guest's needs, it is our belief that they need to be talked to and talked through their order," says Good, stressing the service factor. The human element, he believes, helps to ensure that the order will be correct and gives ample time to answer questions.

"It also allows for upselling and puts the restaurant in control of quoting a time order if there is a backup or if the order is placed but will be picked up later." However, after ten years of operation, the company added takeout windows at its Bravo! locations -- "When we added take-out ordering, our to-go sales increased by 100 percent and stayed at that level. The convenience of taking a few steps to a window, not having to come in the restaurant and having the order ready to go has proven to be a huge hit with our guests."

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