5 Ways to speed up restaurant service

by John Jones | Apr 28, 2022

Most things become slower over time - your FT blogger's knees included - as what were once paragons of efficiency become a little creaky. 

If service speed is becoming an issue in your restaurant but you're struggling to understand why, you're in luck. In this short blog we look a number of exercises to restore your restaurant's vitality, but without a gym session in sight.

Forecast traffic and plan accordingly

One of the most common reasons for service grinding to a halt is unforeseen demand causing congestion in the restaurant and bottlenecks in the service journey. Restaurants have long been expert at managing these peaks and troughs by amending their plans and schedules on the fly, a skill developed over many years of being at the heart of a very dynamic operational environment.

It is the surprise element which often catches out restaurants, when a normally quiet session bucks its own trend and sees an influx of hungry customers. Those instances tend to be handled in isolation and put down to just being a feature of restaurant management life. 

Savvy restaurateurs, however, are recognising that they have at their finger tips a wealth of data to help predict trends and footfall. By analysing previous customer flow, conclusions can be drawn about what might happen in the future so the surprises can be minimised. Modern restaurant management software is excellent for collecting this data and presenting it in a clear way via various configurable forecast reports, resulting in less surprises and the opportunity to plan ahead.

Optimise the physical layout

A clunky layout may be quaint and endearing in a traditional village pub, but more usually will reduce efficiency. One of the pitfalls of a poor layout is an increased wait time for customers, which as we all know is one of the most frequent complaints left by customers in online reviews.

The key here is to recognise what can realistically be done to maximise the efficiency of a layout without affecting customer comfort or enjoyment. We don't want a production-line type environment for our guests, but there is certainly a balance to be achieved between the optimal theoretical layout and guest experience. 

One of the key areas to consider is how the restaurant's total floor space is divided and allocated. A new-build business or one undergoing significant internal changes may want to allocate 60% of the floor space to dining and 40% to the kitchen. Restaurants without the luxury of a blank sheet of paper when it comes to design have to think more creatively about how they allocate their space, however. 

The basic principle for successful space optimisation is to know the building's limits. In theory any restaurateur can pack in more and more tables (subject to health & safety laws) but doing so may well reduce the customer's enjoyment of their experience as they bang elbows with their table neighbours or feel that intimacy has been compromised.

Thankfully there are a few tricks deployed by experienced restaurateurs to maximise space, such as using square tables instead of round ones (round tables tend to take up more floor space, and can be merged for more flexible layouts); Chairs without armrests also give guests more elbow room and allow them to slide in and out of the chair more easily with less space; the removal of the bottlenecks often found in the arrival area (is that coat stand the reason why there's always a delay at the entrance?); if the specials board causes traffic jams as customers peruse it, consider removing it and adding a specials menu to each table; congestion at the order station or payment area can be significantly reduced with the introduction of simple technology.

Finally, there are some excellent software systems which have in-built and flexible layout designers, allowing restaurateurs to see at a glance where optimisations need to me made and re-align the session's table plan to suit.

Enable on-demand ordering and payments

Speaking of which, modern diners do expect the option of ordering their food and paying for it from their table, online. This is a relatively recent innovation but one which has been enthusiastically embraced by guests and owners alike, particularly in the wake of the pandemic and subsequent drive to reduce touch points.

But this option isn't all about reducing what customers touch; increasingly the public is becoming more and more attuned to the benefits of interacting with their favourite brands online across many aspects of life. At-table technology is moving forward at a rapid pace, to the extent that the concept of a waiter bringing a mobile PDQ machine to the table for card payments will no longer cut it with a tech-native public – they want to be able to order and pay from their smartphones.

The great news here is the availability of a number of great value and easy to use systems which provide this service. In so doing, restaurants can reduce bottlenecks at order and pay points, increase accuracy and speed up service considerably.

Create workable menus

Menus with too much choice will always cause a reduction in service speed, simply because there is so much for them to peruse. A wide choice is great in theory, but not when a table is taking half an hour to choose their meal. A periodic review of a menu will go a long way to identifying if it is simply too big and a cause of bottlenecks.

So, we've reduced our menu to something more manageable. Can we do anything else to speed up service? Actually, yes, because the way a menu is physically designed can have a huge impact. A simple trick is to position easy-to-make options where customers will see them first, such as on the front, front left page or in the centre.

Did we mention online menus and pre-ordering? Restaurants can actually eradicate paper menus altogether and have customers make their choice on their smartphones. Many restaurant technology vendors will produce branded apps for this very purpose, which also allow customers to choose their meals before they arrive. 

Engage staff

Last but not least, let's not forget the part staff play in maximising speed of service. The best restaurant layout in the world won't make up for staff who just don't understand the “speed KPI” or who are simply inherently slow. If speed is a key driver for restaurateurs, this should be explained to new recruits at the interview stage and reinforced throughout the fabric of the business's communications. 

Refresher training is a good way to motivate staff, as are incentive schemes based on, say, wait times. And for a generation of tech-native hospitality employees, nothing engages them more than the introduction of a good quality restaurant management system.

Wrapping up

There is a fine balance to be struck between efficiency and rushing. No customer wants to feel like their dining experience was like a speeded up movie, but equally restaurateurs do need to recognise that time is money, meaning that there is an optimum figure for guest throughput to be achieved.

By using some of the above tips, restaurants can improve their own efficiency and therefore bottom lines, whilst not impacting the customers' overall enjoyment.


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