6 strategies to cut down customer wait times

Get in line with efficient service.

students line main

"I love waiting in line,” said no one ever. Lengthy lines are a thorn in the side of any business and can lead to cranky customers and lower profits if fewer diners are processed. With the rise in competition from fast casuals, operators want to put the emphasis on “fast” with their own wait times—even operators serving captive audiences. Here’s what several are doing, from smart staffing to mobile payments, to keep lines short and speedy.

1. Swing staff

In a Broadway show, a swing is an on-call cast member who’s ready to move into any role. Staffers at The Waters, a two-year-old group of seven senior living communities in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester, Minn., function somewhat similarly. One employee from the second floor full-service restaurant is poised to relieve the first floor counter-service cafe if a line starts to form, says Vice President of Operations Joel Danko. “We can almost always have a runner that is helping out upstairs and then [can come] downstairs to help out,” he says.

2. Give ’em a buzz

Just one custom station at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., has a wait exceeding two minutes: a design-your-own personal-pizza station, which takes five to six minutes. “We give you a little buzzer similar to The Cheesecake Factory,” says Senior Associate Director of Residential Dining Mark Petrino. “You can go around and pick out everything else you’d like, then sit down at a table. The students like that because they don’t have to stand there and wait.”

3. Go mobile

During his time overseeing corporate dining for Mountain View, Calif.-based software company Intuit, Ali A. Gonzalez, assistant vice president and dining program strategist for contract-management company CulinArt, has seen mobile payment cut wait times in half. “It takes from 10 to 40 seconds to get the customer to pull out cash and count the money back,” he says. “When you have mobile pay, he rings you up within five seconds, and then you pull out your phone—you’re done in under eight seconds.”

Intuit’s dining facilities use a mobile app that allows frequent customers to earn rewards, and Gonzalez says Intuit is installing Apple Pay within the next month. To use Apple Pay technology, the operation’s scanners are connected to the existing POS system, then customers can use their iPhones to pay for the meal.

4. Take the express

Colorado State plans to add an express line to its soup-and-sandwich concept, where students sampling different soups cause a 10- minute wait at peak times. “The people who know what they want are in more of a hurry,” says Petrino. “We’ll keep the full-service line, but we’ll also make an express line, [with a choice of] only two or three soups and two or three salads. … There will be no tasting; you need to know exactly what you want.”

5. Solve speed bumps with self-service

Gonzalez noticed that diners’ requests for extra burger toppings were contributing to ballooning wait times at Intuit’s grill station, so he moved the fixings to a self-service cold case. “You go over to the cool well, and you put your toppings on [your burger],” he says. “That helps the line so you’re not standing there requesting extra pickles and extra tomato.”

6. Prime your POS

Don’t underestimate the role a sluggish POS can play in extending wait times. “Your POS system needs to be No. 1,” says Gonzalez.

“Make sure your credit-card processor can go in the speed of seconds and not take 20 or 30 seconds.” Upgrading to the latest technology can add cost, of course, but the investment is worthwhile in the long run, he says.

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