What is in this article?:
- Get 'er done: 7 ways to speed up service
- See more tips from operators
Shaving even a little time from your service can pay off handsomely in the long run.
John Brandt-Lee, chef-owner at Avalon Restaurant in West Chester, PA, faced a dilemma. Customers felt so comfortable at his intimate BYOB concept that they would settle in for the evening, limiting the revenue his 40 seats could generate.
“We needed the tables to turn—but for customers not to feel as though we had dropped a check with their dessert,” he recalls.
His answer was to adopt a small plates format. Food runners started hustling the antipasti items family style out of the kitchen as soon as they were ready. Individual entrees went out next. The runners efficiently cleared tables, giving servers more time to take orders and interact with guests elsewhere in their stations without unnecessary trips back to the kitchen.
The experiment has been a success. It’s shaved half an hour from the time it takes to service a four-top. It also hasn’t alienated the guests. “The social interaction and constant staggered ebb and flow at the table gives the customers the feeling that it is part of the experience and not a rushing tactic,” Brandt-Lee says.
There are countless ways to speed up a restaurant’s service sequence, starting with the initial order and ending with presentation of the check. Here are seven ideas for ways to get it done faster.
1. Don’t skimp on staff.
Many restaurant owners, looking to save a few bucks on labor, stretch their servers, runners and bussers too thin. “We offer our service team smaller sections to ensure efficient, high-quality service, even at peak hours,” says Laura Payne, g.m. at Chicago’s Purple Pig.
That’s a smart strategy, according to Fred LeFranc, founding partner of Results Thru Strategy, a Charlotte, NC-based company that has fine-tuned a number of restaurants and chains. He advises clients to focus on productivity—sales per hour or guests per hour. Beefing up staff, giving them goals, creating smaller stations and staffing up behind the scenes are steps that often boost productivity well beyond the additional labor costs.
2. Help your guests to help themselves.
The more time a server spends at one table, the less time he or she has to help another party. That’s not a problem at a destination restaurant where guests plan to spend several hours, but the average operator needs to turn tables. Why put stumbling blocks in the way of an order?
For instance, is your menu clever—or is it functional? “You have to decide if you are the type of restaurant that can do three-word descriptions or if you need a sentence or two. At a lower price point, you probably want to provide more information so the guest can order quickly,” says Frank Klein, a foodservice consultant based in San Francisco.
Wine lists can require time-consuming consultations as well. Klein suggests providing tables with iPad wine lists with detailed tasting notes, printing a short description after each wine or simply listing wines in order from light to robust, or dry to fruity, to help steer guests.
Even a simple gesture, like leaving a pitcher of water on the table, can save a server or busser time and steps.
3. Take a strategic approach to menu design.
Streamlining a menu is a good way to speed up orders.
“You need to look at the complexity of the menu and how many ingredients are in each of those items,” says Shelia Turner, v.p. of restaurant operations and marketing for the Puccini Group, which manages San Francisco’s Presidio Social Club. “The more ingredients, the more difficulty you have in getting it out of the kitchen, and the more items you need to maintain on the line.”
Thinking about equipment is another key to streamlining the preparation process. “Match the menu to the kitchen equipment that you have,” Klein suggests. As your menu evolves, consider different equipment to match it. And it’s important to update your POS system as your menu changes as well, so your servers won’t need to spend extra time hunting for current items. “Sometimes there are ‘ghost’ items just sitting there taking up space and confusing everyone,” Turner says.
Guests like tapas and other small plates because they are fun; many owners and chefs like them because they are fast and can be served immediately rather than according to the traditional app/entrée/dessert pattern.