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Taming Traffic

Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Menus posted outside entrances (at Stony Brook University Hospital) give customers time to consider the "specials" before they enter the servery.

At Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, lines posed a special problem for hospital employees, who had only a 30-minute period to select, pay for and consume their meal.

Cash registers at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center were reconfigured to collect less information -- but lines move faster.

Ohio State University responded to peak rushes by changing its food offerings to allow a complete meal selection in three to four minutes.

Attractive displays of prepared foods at Stony Brook University Hospital help customers make faster decisions and increase impulse buys.

Noontime rushes forced the University of Nevada at Reno's Mexican concept from made-to-order to pre-packaged.

The University of Georgia spreads out traffic by giving each dining commons its own unique attraction—smoothies, sushi, or all-night service.

On the list of challenges faced by onsite operators, long lines is one of the more reassuring. They mean you're doing lots of things right—or customers wouldn't be in line in the first place. But although loyal customers will put up with an occasional check-out stall, if the lines occur too often or remain too long, even the best customers will run out of patience and take their business elsewhere.

Adding more register stations is not always an option and sometimes doesn't even address the problem. This article looks at some common causes of customer traffic logjams and some tactics that can help you break them up.

LINE STALLER #1: What's to eat?
> SOLUTION: Move menus up-front and on-line.
When Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island, NY, upgraded its Market Place Cafe menu in a major renovation several years ago, the new, more sophisticated menu was unfamiliar to regulars. To familiarize customers with the new options, the department began to post menus weekly on the hospital website. Menu boards listing each station's specials were displayed outside the cafe entrance. A separate phone line, with pre-recorded messages describing each day's specials, gets 1,200 hits a month, according to Paul Hubbard, associate director of Stony Brook's foodservice operation. Hubbard attributes the line's popularity to the fact that the messages are recorded by an employee "who is so entertaining she should be doing stand-up comedy."

Hubbard adds that a five-minute staff meeting before opening for breakfast and lunch is used to brief staff on the day's specials and low-fat options so they are better informed and able to quickly advise customers on making selections.

LINE STALLER #2: What Looks Good Today?
>SOLUTION: Display the Food.
At Holy Cross Health Ministries, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Dawn Outcalt, RD, LD, executive director of nutrition services, placed a four-foot-tall statue of a chef at the entrance to the busy cafeteria with a printed menu in its hand, listing the specials of the day. The day's two hot entree specials are plated and on display at a table in front of the statue. This reduces the number of customers who hold up lines by trying to read posted menus or roaming the serving line to check out the day's specials before making selections.

LINE STALLER #3: Keying in a Full Tray
>SOLUTION: One Meal = One Key
"When we got our new point-of-sale system, we specified a touch-screen system and gave every menu item its own button. That was to give us more detailed information to use in forecasting, inventory control and other functions," says Edward Winne, guest services director at Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA.

"But that turned out to be a big mistake. The amount of extra screen touches it required slowed things down tremendously. We often had up to 30 people lined up at each of the four cash registers and we began losing customers."

What did he do? "We resigned ourselves to not getting as much information out of the system as we initially wanted," says Winne. "Once we made that decision, staff members Gregg Altland and Linda Solenberger streamlined the system and put all of the weighed items on one button at the same price and we reduced screen touches by grouping items and prices."

Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas took a similar approach. When a new walkway opened in front of the hospital's Cafe Presby, traffic exploded. And so did lines. William Cunningham, retail/production manager of the food/nutrition/conference services department, says there were enough individual serving stations and sufficient menu variety to handle the additional 300 to 400 lunchtime customers daily, but everyone hit the cash registers at once.

"Traditionally, everything here has been sold a la carte," he says. "It didn't take long to determine that the most time-consuming task at the registers was to search for each meal item on the screens."

The department launched an experiment with the THR healthy plate being promoted by the hospital's parent company, Texas Health Resources, offering 30 to 40 cents off the price if a customer bought the full plate.

"Sales in that section doubled in one day so we knew we were onto something," says Cunningham."We then introduced a Blue Plate Special. By bundling meals—any entree bundled with two sides for one price of $3.99, for example -- there is one button to push instead of three or four."

Cafe Presby then moved to weighted items. "Our salad bar was a challenge time-wise," says Cunningham. "It was always sold by weight, with each salad weighed and priced individually." Now, customers select from three different-size containers, priced at 95 cents, $1.95 and $3.95.

The results were immediate. Cunningham reports a dramatic decrease in the length of lines at the cash registers and says that "an unforeseen benefit has been the huge improvement in the overall satisfaction with our cafeteria services. We were originally just trying to speed up services, but the customers perceived the changes—especially the bundled meals—as added value to them."

LINE STALLER #4: Wait! I Have Change
>SOLUTION: Discourage Cash
Card swipe systems have minimized line problems for many operators and linking the swipe systems to Internet-based processing sites speeds check-out even more. Such systems accept standard credit cards and student/employee ID cards and employee badges; they can also be linked to credit or debit systems.

"Any time you can eliminate cash, you speed up a line," says Stony Brook's Hubbard. "We've also found customers using charge cards are more likely to treat themselves to an extra item or a dessert."

"Cash slows everything down and we'd like to eliminate it completely," agrees Winne. He notes that voucher systems can sometimes create similar problems. At Hershey

Medical Center, medical residents receive credits for hours worked to use for food purchases. That practice slowed down lines as residents tried to come up with the right combination of food and credit slips to pay for each meal.

"If the bill was less than their credit, they would leave the line and go pick up another item to make up the difference," Winnie says. Now, the POS system accepts an ID-card swipe and then references a database of credits maintained by the medical resident office to pay for meals. It is lighting fast—and accurate.

LINE STALLER #5: Everyone is Thirsty
>SOLUTION: Re-think Beverage Stations
At the Ohio State University, Chef Mark Newton says a newly renovated unit was seeing stalled lines until foodservice added three check-out stations and reversed the unit's traffic flow (making the entrance the exit, and vice versa). However, lines were still bogging down at the beverage station. "We moved beverages out of the controlled area and into the dining area, where it became an all-you-can-drink station," says Newton. "What we gave up by moving to what are essentially ‘free' beverages, we more than made up in public relations value and faster lines."

Other operators say that adding an abbreviated beverage station with a few basic beverage selections to the end of each servery minimizes lines at the central beverage station and increases overall beverage sales.

LINE STALLER # 6: Where's the Salad Bar?
>SOLUTION: Clear the Line of Sight.
It helps to discourage lineups right at a cafe's entrance. "You want to coax customers directly to their destinations," suggests Kristen Berry, assistant director of retail services at Stony Brook University Hospital. "You don't want customers to habitually line up to get their food. Instead, you want them to select very distinct stations they can go to directly, with prominent signage appealing to various customer moods and tastes."

At Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH, a total renovation of Cafe Break Away gave foodservices little additional space but did provide a complete redesign with multiple destinations, according to Liz Boone, RD, executive director of nutrition services. Some of the main goals were to move popular items out of busy stations, expand popular self-serve offerings and capitalize on the flexibility of equipment.

A free-standing soup station features two hot cereals at breakfast and two soups at lunch. The salad bar doubled in size and popular items were put in two places on it, with sandwich meats and cheeses added so customers could assemble a chef's salad. The cafe tripled the number of its grab-and-go offerings, many of them packaged in clear plastic hinged containers. Hot sandwiches from the grill stations, including burgers, are selected from a heated slide and then finished off by customers from a nearby condiment selection.

"If a customer wants five slices of tomato on a cheeseburger, we say, ‘go for it,'" says Boone. "The lines move faster and they finish it off the way they want." Boone also says cash registers are now staggered ‘Wal-Mart style,' so the next person in line goes to the next open register.

LINE STALLER #7: Sign here.
>SOLUTION: Pass on Signatures.
When the University of Nevada at Reno renovated a residential dining facility and knocked down some walls to open the space, "we were getting people through the points of service faster, but they were still standing in line at the registers," says Russ Meyer, associate director for housing operations and dining services. They added two cash registers, moved the registers closer to dining room exits, replaced dial-up connections with high-speed ones at credit card machines and stopped requiring signatures on card charges below $25.

LINE STALLER #8: The Noon Whistle Blows.
>SOLUTION: Have the Product Ready.
Meyer also describes a situation at the university's business school, which was served by a branded Mexican made-to-order concept, a station that produced the most dramatic traffic spikes on campus.

"In the first 20 minutes of each hour, 80 to 100 customers would walk through that door and want to be served immediately," says Meyer. "A made-to-order concept just wasn't workable. We went to an express program in which merchandise was prepared and packaged in the lull before the peak and everything was ready when the first customer walked though the door."

At the Ohio State University, "Every facility gets slammed at 20 minutes after noon with a rush of 200 to 500 customers," says Newton. "We have tried to encourage customers to voluntarily arrive later, but as long as they have class the next hour, that isn't seen as a viable option. You might as well accept it."

In response, Newton has expanded grab-and-go meals and express lunches (one entree plus three sides) that allow customers to make a full-meal selection from pre-packaged options within three to four minutes. (Two quick-serve, eight-foot, open-display coolers are located at the facility's entrance to facilitate this).

Newton also has made changes in the display cooking station to shorten wait times. "We've streamlined procedures to do more prep and assembly work in advance, while still maintaining the perception of ‘made fresh.' Chicken is already blanched and chilled so it only needs to be brought up to temperature. Sauces are kept hot and tossed over pasta when served." He cautions that "this approach only works when you're doing such high volume that nothing is left when the meal period is over."

Crowding at Popular Serveries.
>SOLUTION: Divert traffic to new destinations with unique products/ services.
At the University of Georgia, foodservices has built one new dining facility and renovated three others since 2000. J. Michael Floyd, director of foodservices, says the initiative has had two major goals: to increase meal plan participation in the student body by offering "something for everyone," and to "equalize traffic among the facilities."

Floyd cites overall customer traffic counts that are now split almost equally among the four dining commons and the growing percentage of off-campus students who sign up for the meal plan as marks of the plan's success.

The key is menu mix, he says. Each dining hall commons has something unique that is available on the meal plan. The newest hall, located next to the campus' recreation facility, has a smoothie station. Another dining commons, which had the lowest weekday customer count prior to its renovation, pulled its numbers up with a full-service coffee shop, a Mongolian grill and a sushi bar that sells 1,600 pieces of sushi a night to its predominantly-female clientele.

LINE STALLER#10: Traffic bunches at peak periods.
>SOLUTION: Shift business to slower periods by promoting off-peak specials.
At Holy Cross, Outcalt sets up a hot dog cart on the hospital's outside patio in nice weather and sells a drink, chips and hot dog for $2. She also introduced a "Get the Scoop with Scott" program—a monthly, mid-afternoon ice cream station at which Scott Winkel, the popular catering manager, prepares such treats as bananas foster, strawberry shortcake, cherries jubilee, hot fudge sundaes, warm apple crisp and peach cobbler.

"The cost is low—$1.25 and $2—and traffic is at most 80 people. But the customers love it," she says.

Traffic Report: All Clear
The good news is that once you've got the lines under control, you'll know. When a strategy is successful, congestion clears, satisfaction improves and efficiencies increase. When Stony Brook University Hospital opened its new cafe, the chief operating officer visited on the second day of operations and was visibly distressed. "It's not very busy," he said. "I expected to see lines of customers out the door."

Hubbard recalls that as music to his ears. "I explained that our new cafe design was letting us move more customers through more quickly, even as we were smashing all our retail sales records."

Paying a Steep Price For Long Lines

Pinellas County is piloting a vended program to make reimbursable meals available during the school day.

If there were a prize given for the most extreme reaction to customer lines, it would probably go to Pinellas (FL) County School District, where administrators were so frustrated by the disruptive disciplinary problems that occurred in long high school lunch lines that they simply scheduled school lunch as the final period of the day. Students in these locations can purchase a la carte sandwiches, snacks and drinks from roving carts on their way between classes or from vending machines. Or, they can wait until the end of the school day to get a reimbursable lunch on their way out the door.

"From the administration's point of view, the strategy has worked," says Gray Miller, the district's foodservice director. "It has virtually eliminated disciplinary referrals. But from my professional point of view, it contradicts everything we know to be true in the field of nutrition. We're not accomplishing our program mission of providing for the health and well-being of these older children, especially those who may not have had a meal since the day before. They are still growing. They need access to the lunch program during the day."

The line problem originated in 1995, when the first high school in the district moved to a single, 50-minute lunch period for the entire school.

"Suddenly, we had more than 2,000 students entering the cafeteria in a single surge. There was no way to control the lines and long lines of high school students will almost always create problems," Miller says. "Students are shoving, breaking into the line, and acting up in general. We tried multiple everything—more serving lines, more cashier stations, more pre-packaged food—there was just no way to serve them fast enough."

Still, scheduling lunch as the last period in nine of the district's 17 high schools decimated the free-and-reduced-price reimbursable meal program, for which one-third of the approximately 35,000 high school students qualify.

Pinellas is not the only Florida school district suffering from long lines in the lunchroom. Most have had problems keeping up with the growth in enrollment.

"All the money has gone into classrooms and there are no extra dollars for constructing core facilities," says Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough County's school foodservice director. "In many of our elementary schools, lunch service starts before 10 a.m. and runs as late as 1:30 p.m. Parents don't understand why their children are eating lunch when they just finished breakfast."

There is no easy solution short of capital investment in school facility expansion. "Cafeterias built for 300 are serving 900 students," says Harrison. "We tear down walls between the serving and dining areas and establish more lines, but that creates a domino effect because students then have less space to sit and eat."

Cruise to Line Control
"On a cruise ship, you spend a lot of time standing in line," admits Ken Taylor, manager of Fleet Restaurant Operations for Royal Caribbean International.

"You wait in line at immigration. You wait in line to board the ship. You wait in line for excursions. You wait in line at the ports. So we try to keep food and beverage lines as free-flowing as possible."

Like any foodservice venue, cruise ships need to spread traffic out among various outlets to avoid bottlenecks. For Royal Caribbean, the bottlenecks are often caused by the tremendous popularity of its Windjammer Marketplace concept featuring individual, market-like stations. The original idea was to capitalize on the typical Royal Caribbean guest—one who tends to be less formal, more active, family-oriented, and younger —and one more interested in finishing meals quickly to get to other scheduled activities.

The problem was that the immediate popularity of the concept led to serious waits in line. The answer was to divert the overflow to the more formal dining room of the ship. But how?

Royal made the re-branded new option equally informal and fast. The result: Brasserie 30, a concept that heavily promotes a twocourse menu that can be "experienced" in 30 minutes—perfect for travelers who have appointments for activities, spa treatments, excursions or shore trips. The menu features 20-plus items that cover the salad, soup, appetizer, entree and dessert categories and are "easy to execute." Chalkboard menu displays with brass-backed menus highlight the Brasserie 30's casual nature.

"By promoting Brasserie 30 lunch, we reduce the traffic flow from the Windjammer Marketplace and offer an international menu that is built for speed," says Taylor. "On any given cruise, we accommodate guests from as many as 20 different nations."

That makes menu explanations mandatory. Side-by-side with the menu selections is a listing of menu descriptions. Included are detailed descriptions of such menu terms as panzanella and nasi goring, with the descriptions removing the intimidation factor by also describing more commonplace terms such as parmigiana, prosciutto and strip loin.

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