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Tips from Traffic Consultants

Paul Hysen, The Hysen Group.

"Until we find a way to get radio frequency devices embedded in donuts," says Hysen, "we are going to need cashiers—and that's where we are going to have lines. In this country, consumers are not yet ready to check themselves out."

Here is Hysen's advice on methods to speed traffic flow and minimize lines.

Work with work schedules. In an office complex of educated, white-collar employees, there is more flexibility to spread peak traffic. "You just have to inform customers ‘If you come a little earlier – 11:40 a.m. instead of noon – or a little later – 12: 15 p.m., you will get much faster service and not have to deal with lines.'" In a production plant with assembly-line processes or a campus facility where everyone's classes dismiss and resume on the same schedule, you don't have that flexibility. Everyone is going to leave and come back at the same time so you have to accommodate that. Concentrate on pre-portioning food and make the product easily and quickly accessible by reducing the amount of serving time. "You can't do deli made-to-order sandwiches in this environment," he says, "but you can have a five-footlong sub sandwich that customers can order in two- or three-inch slices. With these time restrictions, you can't ‘have it your way.'"

Satellite food. Many of Hysen's clients have used satellite units very successfully, whether a portable cart, a kiosk or a permanent 10-by12-foot room with a gate that slides open only during narrow peak serving hours. Satellited services do not eliminate the need for a main, central foodservice operation with a broad menu but they do divert some of the traffic and extend the range of foodservice by providing a convenient, cost-effective alternative in an underserved or unserved area. Hysen suggests a portable cart could be open from 7 to 8:30 a.m. for continental breakfast service of coffee, rolls, yogurt and again from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with soups, snack items and prepared sandwiches.

A four- to six-hour employee can fully staff a cart – packaging the food, loading the cart, moving it to the location, ringing up sales and returning it to the kitchen to stock for the next meal.

Captive versus occasional customers. An operator with a stable, returning customer base can be a bit more casual in his cafeteria design because the assumption is that a customer who eats in the same facility every day knows where to find everything. But operations with more one-time or occasional customers need more design cues to help in selection. "The more outside customers you have, the more important it is that the customer can see the entire serving area from the entrance so he becomes quickly oriented to where things are," says Hysen. "Cafeteria designs that snake around corners and place large ice machines in the center of the servery leave customers wondering, ‘where is the coffee?' Hysen also recommends that an operation with more occasional customers resist the impulse to get "too cute" with servery names and signage and use names that "say what it is" to avoid confusing the customer.

Decision-making. Hysen advises serving "chef's specials" menu items that change day to day at the servery entrance. The standards—burgers, pizza, and the deli counter—can be further in the back but the customer wants to see what's new first. He also recommends placing a sample of the day's special under plexiglass at the servery entrance along with a sign noting the item name and its price. "It works much better than a flat-screen TV description about the special that you have to read. A plate is easier to read than a screen. The customer sees the plate and quickly decides that ‘sea bass doesn't excite me today. I'm going to get a hamburger.'"

Kathleen Seelye, partner, president of foodservice design, Ricca Newmark Design.

"We often refer to ‘Tom Ricca's theory of the oblivious human animal,'" says Seelye. "He believes that ‘If we see a line, we think that's where we are supposed to go. There is a natural human instinct to get in a line.' "

Seelye says the important thing in evaluating lines is "the choice the customer makes. It's all about choice. The more customers feel they have freedom of choice, the more successful we feel we are [with our design]. We never want to segregate any customer and make them feel they are receiving less of an experience. It's never just about food choice. The customer may need the choice to avoid the line and get back to their desk quickly. Or a customer can choose to watch a chef prepare his order. It's one thing to stand in a line and wait for a product being prepared for you in front of you when you have made the choice to do so. Yet it is an entirely different experience to wait in line for a product to be prepared when are seeking a quick serve meal."

Seelye's cut-off for the entire serving and cashing process is six minutes. Anytime the customer exceeds six minutes, she says their perception of food quality drops significantly. In studying a client's facilities, "we study the traffic patterns and create a matrix for each station – the time it takes to get to the station, the time it takes to consider all the options, the time it takes to order and get a meal and pay for it. We also consider the bigger circle of going to multiple stations and selecting components for a meal. " When Ricca Newmark Designs renovates facilities with line problems, "we create a new production sequence – we create enough different service points so no service line is crossing another and you are literally spreading people out throughout the servery," says Seelye.

She says her company "looks up" and designs well above the horizontal line. "Lines will be longer if you see everything at waist level. You need to create a vision above individual stations to pull customers away from the line with food, salad or bulk food displays at the upper level of the eye's viewpoint. The message of that vision or display has to be clear so the customer immediately ‘gets it' because not everyone knows when they enter a servery if they are in the mood for just a traditional sandwich or grilled item. Most customers want to see what else is available when they first walk in and will do a ‘walk-about.'" This process alone can impact traffic flow in the servery.

The college market is seeing a mix of retail locations with all-you-care-to-eat facilities that allow for continuous activity. "Continuous service definitely affects design. There's nothing worse than sitting in a dining area and staring at a gated section of the dining area that is closed down with the lights off. That lack of planning completely destroys the customer experience— and his perception of quality. Because it is possible to expand and contract service points and staffing levels throughout the varied dayparts, we have learned to stage the facility and close off part of a dining room and servery without the customer seeing what's closed off."

Seelye predicts increased usage of technology in the future, including hand scanning check-out and place-your-order-in-advance kiosks, will further reduce traffic jams. Such systems have never caught on with older age groups but Seelye says the younger generation "is not as dependent on human interaction and more willing to use technology to avoid standing in lines."

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