View from the Kitchen

Find a good system, and stick to it

There is a line in the musical Flower Drum Song: “How will we ever communicate without communication?” Here is my question to you: Is poor communication in your restaurant costing you money?

I started thinking about this during a recent road trip. I stopped in a store of a major quick-service chain that sells Mexican food. I don’t eat fast food very often, but on this recent drive between San Diego and my home in the San Francisco Bay area I did. When I ordered I was asked for my name. I blinked, thinking I had walked into a famous coffee house. The cashier, sensing my confusion, explained: “We will call out your name when your order is ready.”  I told him my name, which he had some difficulty spelling.  It took him three tries of Allen, Alan, and Aden before he got my name of Adam correct.  Not only was this a waste of time, irritating to the many people in the long line behind me, but wiped out any sense of a personal touch.  It would have been easier and faster to say, “Sir, you are number 739.”

I moved to the end of the counter. As each bag or tray of food was prepared the person preparing it would walk up to the pickup area. Here is where the real problems started.

One staffer actually did call out names, but would mispronounce the name or not read the correct name on the tag, causing confusion. For example the name “Mary” was called out three times. When the order wasn’t picked after the third time a man stepped forward and said his name was “Marty” and suggested maybe that was his order. The employee asked what he ordered, then confirmed that the order was not his. Mary’s name was called out two more times. Finally, the worker gave up and called out a number. A woman came forward and announced her name was “Marie” and picked up the order.

Another food preparer called out a four-digit number based on the receipt (and one called out a two-digit number from the receipt). But by then many people had already tossed out their receipts since they thought they would be called by name. I don’t need to tell you about the disruption and ill-tempers this caused.

My favorite miscommunication was caused by the food preparer who called out what was in the bag.  “Two tacos and a burrito” works okay, I suppose, if you only have one or two customers. When a dozen or so customers are waiting, though, a system like this leads to epic bottlenecks as multiple people come forward. Making it worse was when this preparer used different terminology then the menu. For example, a new menu item, rolled tacos, was selling quite well the day I was there. However, she called them by their Mexican name, flautas. You and I might know that a flauta is a rolled taco but many of the weary customers that day did not. I heard someone go up to the window and ask, “Where’s my order? I’ve been waiting over 10 minutes.” The guest was told, “We throw out your flautas, we thought you had left. We called it out over five times.” The very frustrated and irritated customer replied, “But I didn’t order flautas, I ordered the rolled tacos.” The order had to be remade, the rhythm of the kitchen was thrown off, profits were lost—and at least one person will never go to that store again.

I have spent so much time on this story to get the point across that no matter how good your systems, they are virtually worthless unless you train your people how to use them and make sure they are implementing them.

The company I wrote about above is known for being well-managed. The system for calling out orders was a simple one. Yet, it wasn’t implemented and the lack of implementation cost money and ill will.  With that said, how are your systems? Are they well-written? Are your managers and staff trained in them? Are they actually implemented? What do you do when the implementation fails?

When you answer the above questions don’t think just about the system for ordering food and for getting it to the customer. Think about the systems in placing for ordering and receiving product, for monitoring food and beverage costs and sales, for inventory, for opening and closing and for all other parts of running your store. Many of these have been covered in my earlier blogs; take a look and see which ones can save you money.

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