Fast Feasts

Improving speed of service can increase revenue.

Improving speed of serviceOperators who are looking for extra revenue may need to look no further than improving their operations’ speed of service. The ability to move more people through serving lines faster can garner profitable results. Just ask Greg Smith, district manager for Metz & Associates, who currently manages four B&I operations, one of which is the 425-employee Siemens manufacturing plant in New Kensington, PA. Smith says the plant has been so busy—it has more orders than it can keep up with—it became important to get workers in and out of the café as quickly as possible so they could get back to work.

“Before, it was basically a ‘70s-style cafeteria,” Smith says. “It had two points of service—a hot well and a cold well—a couple of beverage coolers, a cashier station and that was it. There are two main lunch rushes, one with mainly plant people and then the administration people would come in right after. Obviously, the lines would get backed up because there were only those couple of points of service. So during the course of six months, we redesigned our entire servery into a scatter system. We’ve got a salad bar, pizza station, a made-to-order station and a pick-up grill station, where you simply pick up your food and go to the cashier. After the rearrangement, sales jumped 25% overnight.”

The redesign allowed Smith’s team to serve more people in the dining room than before and, he says, it’s even easier to do than before. The pre-made grill station is particularly helpful in speeding up service, since “the plant people can just come back, see what we have, put it on their tray, grab a drink, go to the cashier and be out of there in two minutes,” Smith says. A similar redesign helped improve the speed of service at another of Smith’s accounts, Corning in Harrodsburg, KY.

“My best advice is to do your homework,” Smith says. “Take a look at how many people are coming through and then take a look at how many people are in the location total. If you’re not getting a high percentage of participation, then there must be a disconnect. Most often it’s because the customers can’t get through the line because it’s taking too long. So you should start looking at alternate entry points and alternate service points. At Corning, the changes have worked so well that during a building extension they’re doing, they increased the dining room by 40 seats because there was nowhere to sit, yet the plant population has not changed. More people are simply eating in the dining room, which was just not happening before we rearranged the servery.”

A rearrangement of the servery also benefited the wait times at 239-bed Plainview Hospital in Plainview, NY. Director of Food and Nutrition Jackie Smith says her biggest struggle in the hospital’s cafeteria is its old-fashioned straight service line instead of a scatter system.

“If all you want is a pre-made sandwich and a drink, you have to wait behind everyone who is being served a hot meal,” Smith says. “When you only have a half hour for lunch, this is a problem. To alleviate some of this wait, we removed the coffee service off the line and put it in its own separate area. Coffee is free for employees so it didn’t make sense that paying customers had to wait while people were filling up on the freebies. Also, the volunteers eat for free and they like to take their time looking over the selections, so instead of coming through the line on the hour and half hour when the paid employees get their breaks, they have been asked to come through at the quarter and three quarter hour.”

Sometimes all an operation needs is a little reminder for its employees that speed of service matters. At 39,000-student Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, Sarah Johnson, director of dining services, says two of her department’s restaurants were having trouble with complaints about long wait times. To help student employees understand the importance of keeping the line going, Johnson installed kitchen display units, linked to the POS registers that measure the time each order takes. This way, student employees can compare their service time to how long the clock says it should take.

“The blinking lights and different colors inform and motivate the student employees to get the orders out quicker and let them know we are measuring their performance,” Johnson says. “We feel it has helped decrease the wait time for our customers because the staff is more aware. The best measure of its success is the fact that our complaints about the wait time have decreased.”

Johnson says the university’s “On the Go!” station, a grab-and-go concept, was specifically designed to get students in and out quickly.

“We serve 25% of all meals from three locations of the ‘On the Go’ concept,” Johnson says. “All items except soup and some beverages are prepackaged, so students can get a quick grab-and-go meal. The area is arranged to move in a circle and there are items on both sides of the space. The bags are at the beginning and the customers bag as they go.”

When Karen Falder, foodservice director at 1,600-student Mayfield (KY) Independent Schools, first came to the district 22 years ago, the students were still required to carry lunch money with them every day.

“It took forever for students to dig in their pockets for their money,” Falder says. “So I put in POS computer terminals and strongly suggested students and parents keep money in accounts. This speeds up the line tremendously. I also do not break big bills for students; it must be deposited in their accounts. Making change holds up the line too and I feel if parents are sending $20, $50 or $100 with their students, they really want it deposited. That much money just invites them to lose it.”

Another time-saving tactic for Falder was pre-portioning servings for students on the line, but still allowing for self-service. Falder says the students can pick out what they want and it works well for them to be able to set out an assortment of fruits and salads for students to choose from, in addition to the entrées and hot vegetables. It also saves space on the serving line and makes things faster and cleaner than allowing them to serve themselves out of bulk steam table pans.


Web cam system supplements traditional methods for speedy service.

At 24,700-student Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Deon Lategan, director of residential dining services, says his department has struggled with the speed of service at cooked-to-order stations where customers can choose their own ingredients for items like omelets and quesadillas. To tackle this problem, Lategan says they tried several different tactics, the newest being Web cams.

Colorado State University foodservice “In our newest dining hall, we installed two Web cameras so students can log on to our Web site and see how long the lines are before they show up,” Lategan says. “We’re still working out a few technical difficulties with those. It’s also hard for us to gauge how much use the Web cams are actually getting, or if the hits are just people scanning our Web site. We’re planning on doing a media blitz soon to promote those Web cams and let the students know that they are there for them.”

Also on the horizon, Lategan says, is a Web ordering system that will allow students to order from their computer or phone and pick up the order at a designated time. Lategan hopes to have that online by the fall of 2009. Until then, Lategan says his department has been focusing on customer service at its made-to-order stations.

“One helpful way to reduce wait times is to have employees help multiple customers at a time,” says Lategan. “Typically, we like to have the strongest server as the first contact in the line. We train those servers to tactfully pull orders out of indecisive customers.”

Lategan also recommends pre-plating when the servery starts getting busy.

“When lines form, we start plating popular items such as burgers and fries and put them on the hot decks so the customers can just pick up the plate and go,” Lategan says. “It saves time by eliminating the back and forth between server and customer.”

Another successful way to improve the speed of service at made-to-order stations is to have some batch-made items available.

“While many customers would gladly wait to get a stir-fry or pasta dish made-to-order, there are always those who are in a hurry, so having food available for fast pick-up is always helpful,” Lategan says. “At our Mongolian Grill, we can turn a customer once every 40 seconds. But if you’re the 30th person in line, it’s not going to seem very quick to you. So we’ll batch stir-fry some dishes and put them on the hot deck and display them. Depending on how much time the students have, they may opt to get the stir-fry of the day rather than wait for a cooked to order stir-fry. We do the same with a lot of our lines. This way you can quickly make a decision without any specialized service that may slow things down.”

However, Lategan cautions against too much focus on getting customers quickly through the line.

“The more customer interaction, the slower the lines,” Lategan says. “However, there is a fine line between friendly service and impersonal service for the sake of speed, and we continue to struggle with this one. We have posted recommended times to eat when we are slower and that has had limited success.”



Biometrics improved one operator’s speed of service by up to 54%.

Dan AndrewsDuring his 21 years in school foodservice, Dan Andrews, director of foodservices for 65,000-student Seminole County Public Schools in Florida, has continually battled tight budgets, nutritional guidelines and frustrated parents. But there is one battle he seems to have won—the one waged against long lines in his cafeterias. Last spring, Andrews launched a pilot program to see if biometrics was a feasible way to increase his speed of service. After the pilot’s success, he is working this year to get the system in as many schools as possible.

“I had been considering biometrics for several years because I was looking for ways to improve our line speed and improve the security of our student accounts. Plus, with other payment systems there is always a problem—for example, we’ve used numbers in the past and kids forget them or other kids overhear the number and use it the next day; we’ve also used cards and then you have kids that lose them or let other students borrow them—whereas biometrics gives us 100% security.

Siemens pitched our district the idea of using biometrics for computer passwords—we have a district partnership with them. When that happened, the chief information officer called me and said, ‘I know you’ve been interested in all this. Do you want to take a look at it so we can see how it works?’ So we took it from there. We started in one elementary school and it improved line speed about 25%. Then, we took it to one of our high schools and it just flat out stopped kids from using from other students’ accounts. It also improved line speed anywhere from 23% to 54% in that school’s 10 lines. Finally, we installed it in a middle school where it increased line speed about 23% to 24%.

After the pilot was over, it was so successful that we decided we were going to expand the program as our budget allowed. We still only have it in the three pilot schools, but we have plans to expand to at least one other school this fall. The program has been approved for us to install in the rest of the schools during a four-or five-year implementation plan. Overall, we found that it increased line speed between 22% and 30%.

We did have some parent resistance, but not much. We made it optional, so if parents didn’t want their kids to participate, then they had that choice. Out of 850 students at the elementary school, we had five parents who said they didn’t want their kids to participate. At the high school, out of 1,650 kids, we had 17 students’ parents choose not to allow biometrics. The average opt out was less than 1%. It’s important for the parents to know that we don’t store a fingerprint. It’s not a fingerprint, it’s a finger scan and the scan is turned into an algorithm. To start, we usually do what’s called an enrollment, where we scan or ‘enroll’ two or three fingers from different hands. That way if a student injures their hand, they can still go through the line.

There were virtually no costs associated with installing the pilot program. We are going to pay for the costs associated with the actual installation with increased sales. At the high school, we ended up increasing sales 6% so it covered the initial costs overall. The implementation of the three schools cost about $700 per serving line. The high school has 10 serving lines, the middle school has seven and the elementary school has two. The implementation of the other schools is budget based, so we’re going to see if we can install it in several more high schools this year and as the sales increase, then we’ll budget for the rest.”

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