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Smooth operators

Chains share their tips for improving speed, site selection and sales

Experts often recommend that businesses identify the things they do well and focus on a handful of successful habits repeated often — generally known as best practices. But with the sheer volume of available knowledge increasing all the time, doesn’t that mean new and potentially better tricks of the trade should be evaluated?

Successful restaurateurs say yes and no. An operator eager to spur sales or improve systems can experience information overload in the search for new ideas promising fantastic results. Some who’ve been down that road advise using a studied approach and making modest modifications to proven procedures. That, they say, keeps an operation true to its core mission and identifiable to its fan base.

Like a sea captain who knows every journey includes course corrections, good operators expect to alter their best practices slightly as their businesses mature and require adjustment to the ever-shifting marketplace.

Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with a variety of operators doing just that: keeping one foot in the proven past while resting the other on the path of advancement. Here’s what they had to say about making changes to improve speed of service, site selection and the slowly evolving use of customer-facing self-order kiosks.

A need for more speed

Increasing the speed of service in any restaurant can be achieved simply by adding staff, streamlining menus or buying faster cooking equipment. But at 400-unit Moe’s Southwest Grill in Atlanta, management didn’t have to work that hard to find opportunities to beat the clock. It started with tightening operations by reducing clutter and rearranging equipment. Hard as it might be to believe that such small touches would improve sales and reduce transaction times, Moe’s president Paul Damico said the adjustments not only accomplished those tasks, but also contributed to better staff morale.

One seemingly small example was the removal of signage on Moe’s service line sneeze guards because it broke eye contact between burrito makers and guests. Such interruptions only equated to seconds lost per transaction, but over the course of hundreds of such daily pauses, seconds lost morphed into minutes wasted. Order accuracy and speed suffered, as well.

“Simply removing some of the signage on the line made a big difference in terms of speed and crew interaction,” Damico said.

Another seemingly insignificant tweak, he added, was moving the rice cooker to the back-of-the-house, which netted a reduction in exhaust hood sizes “and helped reduce crew traffic behind the line caused by multiple people serving and cooking in the same space.”

The drive to de-clutter work areas, he added, extended to the chain’s recently redesigned prototype. Damico said the more streamlined model is easier to clean and manage overall, and remodeled stores have seen sales increases of 16 percent to 35 percent.

When Plano, Texas-based Pie Five Pizza Co. opened in 2011, speed of service was implied in its promise of a meal in five minutes or less. To achieve such a rapid result, the concept had to be distinctly different from its parent company, the buffet-centered Pizza Inn chain, also based in Plano, not to mention most other pizza companies. Crust options were halved from four to two, and every crust had to be parbaked to shorten preparation time and equalize bake times between the chain’s thin and thicker options. Pie Five also found time savings in the fact that it was only making 9 1/4-inch personal-size pizzas rather than 16-inch pies. 

But when its first store opened, the pace of service revealed unexpected choke points that crowded staff in the wrong places. Those hangups have since been eliminated through store redesigns, said Madison Jobe, senior vice president and chief development officer for Pizza Inn Holding Co.

“It might not sound like much, but we increased the size of the make table to add one more [pizza maker] and make it a three-person setup,” Jobe said. 

Allowing guests to have their own pizza rather than sharing them and possibly argue over topping choices also slashed guest order times. 

“That eliminated another decision point because they get to choose for themselves and not have to discuss it,” Jobe said.

While some suspected Pie Five’s increased toppings options might lead to customer indecision, Jobe said the variety actually simplified the process. 

“It’s really individualization of each pizza that guests like, not variety,” he said, adding, “Most of the pizzas ordered have just one or two toppings anyway.”

With intensified use of new labor- and sales-monitoring software, the dual-brand Checkers and Rally’s Hamburgers chains shaved nearly a minute off customer transaction times over the past year, said Rick Silva, president and chief executive of the Tampa, Fla.-based company. Staffing heavily for the lunch rush was a no-brainer, Silva said, but targeting labor requirements accurately in its growing but less-predictable late-night daypart proved difficult.

The chains applied a POS-based program that analyzed speed-of-service data from the time each car tripped the drive-thru timer until orders passed through the window. By determining variances at each stage of the production process, management could pinpoint where and when breakdowns consistently occurred and move to eliminate them through adjusted labor.

Silva said that data automatically is pushed to company leaders’ smartphones four times daily along with comparisons of current and ideal labor numbers.

“It’s allowed us to be very surgically selective in how we deal with labor problems when we see them,” he said.

When the site is right

Mike Lassiter, chief executive of Rising Roll Gourmet, doesn’t expect franchisees to be real estate experts, but he insists each be trained extensively on site selection before they sign a lease. With more than two decades’ experience in site selection, Lassiter developed a structured training process to impart his knowledge to franchisees of the 16-unit Atlanta-based chain.

In addition to using a detailed 45-question site-selection matrix that gathers extensive information such as demographics, road visibility and accessibility, traffic count, and parking specifics for potential trade areas, franchisees receive lease-analysis guidance to help them comprehend those complex agreements.

The process concludes with a breakeven analysis that Lassiter said leads franchisees “through the homework of calculating on their own” what income they desire versus what they might actually make based on their choice of sites.

“Once we put them through that whole effort, they’re very educated on what they’re looking for,” he said. 

Training aside, Lassiter said it’s important to remain hands-on throughout the process. 

“Whenever we bring a franchisee on board, within the first week I’ve already scheduled a trip to their market and have had a brokerage firm do a market analysis on everything,” he said. We’ve got lots of information when we arrive.”

Texas Roadhouse founder and chairman Kent Taylor also receives mountains of information about sites his real estate team thinks would make a good steakhouse. But for all 400 of the chain’s restaurants, he has been and will continue to be the final arbiter, bidding yea or nay after his personal survey of the situation.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but I go there and observe: people, restaurants, traffic,” Taylor said, adding that casual conversation also can yield useful information. “It’s a lot of going into various restaurants and talking to managers or bartenders — using some secret B.S. I throw out — and the next thing you know, I’m in the know about what’s actually going on in those restaurants.”

Only a handful of Texas Roadhouse stores have closed since Taylor founded the chain in 1994. When three of them tanked early on, he immersed himself in a study of site selection by reading books on real estate and monitoring successful restaurants. 

He said his real estate team now gathers all the hard data, which allows him to “come in with the negative attitude to ask, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ rather than, ‘What’s right?’ I have to look at all sides of the decision and make sure it’s a good one. … Because if anything goes wrong, I take full responsibility and look in the mirror and yell at myself.”

When banks all but ceased lending to restaurants in 2008, Ralph Bower decided Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen would “get very rigorous in our site-
selection discipline.” The president of the chain’s U.S. division, Bower hired a third-party research company to conduct “60,000 customer intercepts to create a psychographic model of who the Popeyes customer really is.”

The evaluations generated two scores: one for whole trade areas and another for actual sites. When combined the scores helped determine whether a particular location would be a good one.

“That’s almost eliminated any failures in the development process ever since,” Bower said. 

The data-rich reports also have allowed Popeyes to better gauge whether choosing a pricey location might well be worth the added investment. 

“Let’s say it leads you to a dominant location that’s going to cost $150,000 more to get, but it’s going to deliver you $300,000 more in volume. That’s the cash-on-cash return analysis [provided by this data that] might lead you to invest in that site.”

Terminal assistance

When Steven Chan introduced a self-order kiosk at 10-unit Tin Drum Asia Café, he simply wanted to help customers make decisions that benefited their personal nutrition goals. What he got in the process was a machine that did that and also heightened the service experience at the Atlanta-based fast-casual concept.

“At the kiosk they could select ‘lower blood pressure,’ and the smart menu would guide them to dishes that help achieve that health goal,” said Chan, who has one or two countertop kiosks in all his units.

Nearly 60 percent of customers in university settings use the kiosks, he said, but in mixed-age situations the usage drops to 25 percent. The result in both environments, however, is shorter order times and increased revenue.

“They lower labor cost because of increases in revenue. We can feed more people during peak times,” Chan said. “Once you’ve got about 40 percent of your overall orders coming through the kiosk, then you really start saving money.”

When burger-and-fries chain Mooyah added a pair of kiosks to a university cafeteria site, it saw average order times drop from 39 seconds to 30 seconds. 

“Now we also see a 17-percent-
higher guest-check average there because of [suggestive selling] we can do on screen,” said Alexis Barnett, director of marketing for the Frisco, Texas-based chain. “When we can show pictures of bacon, avocado, cheese, shakes, etcetera, we sell many more add-ons.”

Barnett called the kiosk installation “such a significant business success for us that we’re working on installing kiosks in our stores in suburbs. … Our goal is to roll them out nationwide [to Mooyah’s other 35 stores] and then open all new units with kiosks.”

San Diego-based Jack in the Box has tested several iterations of its self-order kiosk since launching the cyber server in 2006. With every trial, the company has found enough success to have since placed them in 420 of its 2,200 stores. The most current touch screen versions are bilingual, accept payment and provide change to customers, said spokesman Brian Luscomb.

“Our average check is generally higher when they use the kiosk, and we’re happy with that,” he said. 

Though the terminals do take some pressure off counter workers, Luscomb said any labor reduction in one area of the store means another part of the operation gets more help. 

“The kiosk does a great job of suggesting additional products people might not think of ordering, partly because it does it in a non-intrusive way,” he said. “That we get a lot of positive guest feedback on them is partly why we continue to install them where it makes sense.” n

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