by Susan Dekker, Sr. Consultant, Integrated Insight
The restaurant industry is beginning to open back up to dine-in guests with social distancing restrictions in place. This results in a limit to the total number of customers that can be inside the facility at one time.
How can food and beverage locations maximize throughput given that they can’t serve as many people in the dining room at once? A restaurant should evaluate many different options, such as initiatives to fully develop the takeout and delivery experience. Another option may be to expand the typical meal periods to spread demand throughout the day. Still other possibilities include focusing on family meals, gift cards, or mobile apps. Here we will focus on the most effective way to increase dine-in capacity in a space-constrained environment by minimizing table turn time to make the most of customers already at your door.
Here are the three steps to optimize table turn time:
1. Measure Your Baseline
Total meals served is a function of the number of people in the dining room and how long it takes them to eat. Government regulations are still very much in flux, and the number of people in the dining room will likely be influenced by these rules. New sanitization procedures and changing guest behaviors may cause your table turn time to increase. Restaurant owners now more than ever need to be even more savvy to maximize total meals served.
The first step before making any changes is to understand your baseline. Map out each step of the process and time how long each of the steps take. If you’re unable to directly measure the process, consult with operators and servers to estimate these times. Some of these aspects are dependent on the guest (e.g., how long it takes to eat), but most are within direct control of the restaurant (e.g., how long until a busser arrives at a table after the party leaves). A process may look like this (a shortened version of the many steps involved in food service).
2. Optimize what you can
After measuring your baseline, sit down with key team members to discuss what you see. Identify which areas you think you can influence without impacting guest experience or quality of service. The process may look something like this:
There are many best practices you can use even before a guest sits down. Reservations are always tricky, and may be a necessity in the post-coronavirus-outbreak world to manage guest arrivals. However, reservations can mean you’re holding an empty table for a party who shows up late, if at all. Don’t seat incomplete parties – this extends table turn time as it is longer until the guests place their entrée order. Balance new tables across sections to not overwhelm a single server with many new tables at once. Did section four just get the last three new tables? If so, maybe put the next party in section two.
Now is a great time to evaluate your menu and remove items that are complicated to cook. Streamlining the menu has many benefits including reduced inventory and food waste, and also can improve table turn time. Optimizing the menu can both reduce the decision time for a customer prior to order, and shorten the cook time by eliminating complex meals.
After the guests are seated, understand their expectations for the meal early on. Some customers are seeking an expedited experience, and will be pleased with quicker service rather than feel rushed. Consider asking questions like:
- “Is this your first time here?” – If they’re a repeat customer, they don’t need the typical run-down of the menu. You can just highlight key changes. They also will probably be ready to order quicker.
- “What brings you in?” – Do they have another commitment immediately after? Then they may be in a rush to finish.
Ensure an up-to-date menu is online. You can direct guests to view this menu on their mobile device as they are seated. This not only eliminates a contact point, but may also reduce decision-making time as a guest does not have to wait for a menu (and may even make a decision prior to arrival).
While making rounds across tables, consolidate trips as much as possible. For example, bring waters when you walk to the table to take drink orders. While this tip sounds obvious, actually observe server trips. Spend an hour on a busy night timing how long a server spends walking back and forth. Specifically look for wasted trips or wasted motion. A few extra seconds to pick up a straw doesn’t sound like a big deal, but this time adds up when multiplied over hundreds of parties.
Especially during non-peak periods, a server may have small downtimes with a few minutes of idle time. Have a list of non-time-sensitive tasks for servers, such as filling sauce containers or rolling napkins.
Finally, consumer demand in the midst of the covid-19 outbreak may exceed the limited dining room capacity due to social distancing regulations. If so, consider fully eliminating steps from your table turn time. An example of this would be to only offer dessert to-go.
Paying the check is often one of the longest parts of the dinner experience, and for guests in a hurry, can be one of the most frustrating. Guest expectations are also changing because of coronavirus, so consider mobile payment terminals that can accept contactless payment. If you continue to use a traditional POS station, consider pre-printing guest checks to immediately hand over when appropriate.
Reset tables as quickly as possible. Ensure each person understands their responsibility and leverage communication best practices to alert when a step is complete (e.g., who clears plates, wipes down, sanitizes, etc).
We built a quick simulation to illustrate the impact of reducing table turn time on the number of parties a restaurant can serve. If the peak dinner operation is assumed to be four hours, reducing the table turn time from 1 hour to 46 minutes (24%), allowed for a 28% increase in the number of tables served, or 21 more parties. This change should allow the restaurant to increase their profits by more than 28% given the overhead of staff and facilities are held constant.
3. Standardize, Train and Sustain Employees
Making lasting change needs buy-in from the staff. There is an easy value statement: More guests coming through in the same time period means more opportunity for tips. Increase buy-in by having the staff brainstorm and share their own tactics.
Create a training plan to roll-out any standardized procedure changes, and include best practices that can be used at the server’s discretion. Make sure each person recognizes how their role contributes to the greater goal, and how roles interact.
Set targets for how long certain steps should take, and regularly evaluate if you are hitting your table turn time goals. For example, track ticket times to see if servers are meeting the target time. If not, evaluate why and brainstorm actions.
If you are the manager, be present during busiest times. The dinner rush is not the time to be doing paperwork in the back office. This gives you credibility among your employees that you actually understand the operation. You can also lend a helping hand to support if needed.
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