2009 February: No Speed Limit

2009 February: No Speed LimitThe pros on ABC’s hit series “Dancing with the Stars” have nothing on managers at wellrun restaurants. Timing a meal is akin to choreographing a dance. If the moves are expertly executed, a guest will give high scores, but just one sloppy sequence could get a restaurant voted out of contention.

“The food industry is held accountable by people. Expectations are very high. If someone comes into a restaurant and no one (greets them) within a minute and a half, they could turn around and walk out,” says Neil Neufeld, a partner with Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group (VSAG), a food service consulting fi rm.

VSAG teaches a sequence of service beginning with the “greet,” which should occur within one minute of the hostess seating a guest in the dining room. After a drink order is taken, it should be delivered within two minutes even if it is coming from the bar. Once the drinks are on the table, the server should try to sell an appetizer. And then the fun begins. The server is responsible for ensuring that the appetizers and entreés are timed right and don’t arrive out of order or at the same time. The consensus is that POS systems have simplifi ed the process, but servers still control order placement. Variables include cook time, how busy the kitchen is and how quickly guests are eating.

Returning to VSAG’s sequence, the appetizer should be out within fi ve minutes, but there are exceptions. Servers need to be aware, for example, which appetizers have longer preptimes. “We coach our servers on being able to stretch out the time with guests….They are back within two minutes even if there is no food (and say,) ‘I just wanted to stop by,’ ” Neufeld says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, servers also need to know which appetizers, like garlic toast, are “gobbled up” quickly, and which, like artichoke dip, are savored says Laura Hansen, COO of Minneapolis-based Pizza Lucé. For the former, the entrée order is sent to the kitchen when the toast is picked up, while for the latter, the server checks the table to see how things are progressing.

“With a large salad or something like that, (the server) watches the table. (They might be) so engrossed in conversation that the food is there, but it will go down really slow,” Hansen says.

Concerning entrées, everyone at a table should simultaneously receive a meal that is hot and fresh. “We are not just a pizza place. We have pizza and pasta, which makes it more diffi cult to time. The secret is communication in the kitchen,” says Jerry Colonna, owner of Delio’s Italian Restaurant and Old World Pizza in Sierra Vista, Arizona. “When the pizza is about fi ve or six minutes from being pulled from the oven, the cook on the pizza side says to the cooks on the pasta side, ‘Roll on spaghetti’.”

At Delio’s, servers are told to wait fi ve to seven minutes after entering the appetizer into the system to order the main course. If it is not busy, they wait until the appetizer is in hand to give the kitchen the go-ahead on the entree. “A good rule of thumb is, ‘When the restaurant is full, the ovens are full,’” Colonna says. He holds servers to a level of accountability. If they don’t deliver food on time or give it to the wrong table, they have to pay for it. “They are each a little business unto themselves.”

Three Brothers Italian Restaurants also alters entrée timing depending on how crowded the dining area is. “If the kitchen is extremely busy, the hots expo will communicate with the pizza man to see how long pizzas are going to take and then the orders will be fi red so that the food and pizza go out together,” says Ravi Repole, director, corporate/franchise staff training division.

Sometimes the wait staff can use suggestive selling to assist a bogged down kitchen. “Good managers will say, ‘We’re starting to fall behind in the back … Let’s work on the cold part of the menu,’ ” Neufeld says.

Proper planning also can help. How well a kitchen and server can handle meal timing sometimes stems as far back as menu development. “If you have a family style restaurant…people are expecting a 35-45 minute dining experience. If you (serve) roasted meat, that will take 20 minutes. That will not work,” says Scott Gilkey, president of Gilkey Restaurant Consulting Group. “If you don’t have the right equipment to cook skins in the appropriate amount of time or heat the topping and ingredients fully in the correct amount of time, you won’t meet the consumer’s expectation.” ?

The Beat Goes On

Training and staff scheduling also are important when it comes to timing.

Additionally, managers have to know the staff. Delio’s Italian Restaurant doesn’t have a set limit to how many tables a server is assigned; it depends on the individual. “Some people are nicknamed ‘two-tables.’ … There are others who can take six or eight,” owner Jerry Colonna says.

Pizza Lucé schedules its “A-squad” for anticipated busy times. “We like to say they are allergic to the tickets. They want to get them fi red up and get them out,” says COO Laura Hansen.

As for training, shadowing seems to be the primary method for the wait staff. “For three to fi ve days, they walk around with the most senior server and parrot their moves,” Colonna says.

In the kitchen, cooks need to be trained to be mindful of timing as well. “There are techniques and coaching skills to teach cooks to organize their station and run the wheel so they can produce the pizza in enough time,” says Scott Gilkey, president of Gilkey Restaurant Consulting Group.

As for who to hire, Gilkey says level of experience should match up with the restaurant’s segment. Fast casual can handle fi rst-time servers, whereas upscale dining needs more experience. “(But,) I believe (timing) can be trained to anybody that has a desire to learn and a willingness to work at it,” he says.

Monta Monaco Hernon is a freelance business, technology and features writer based in La Grange Park, Illinois.

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