Want to turn tables quickly and offer fault-free service? Every casual-dining restaurant does. But not every one delivers. Tom Vaughan speaks to some of the restaurants that have harnessed technology to make sure everything runs smoothly and swiftly, even on busy Saturday nights
It's Saturday night and the customer equivalent of tropical deluge has hit your busy restaurant. The queue for tables is growing exponentially and, if you can amuse and seat people efficiently, you stand to make a small fortune. Unfortunately, this is where it could all fall apart: queue-jumpers, slow service and long waits could send those potential spenders into the arms of your nearest rivals. If you want to keep everything running smoothly these days, you need to invest in the latest technology.
At Angelo Gabrilatsou's casual-dining restaurant Papa G's in Manchester, the kitchen can do 1,000 covers on a good Saturday night, turning the 160-seat capacity six times, and the queue at the bar for tables can reach 200.
"How do you get 160 people waiting in a bar to their tables efficiently?" asks Gabrilatsou. "In the early days when I was running restaurants we'd use a microphone, but it would cut out the music and lose the atmosphere, or we'd have a girl running around with bits of paper saying ‘The man in the brown hat'."
Both methods were far from perfect, so when he opened Papa G's 18 months ago, he installed a customer paging system for £2,500. Each diner is given a pager on arrival. They then take a seat in the bar, and when their table is ready the pager buzzes.
"To cater for casual dining in big numbers, you have to put some sort of system in," says Gabrilatsou. "It speeds up a Saturday night. And busy days are all about maximising efficiency."
Turning tables quickly while keeping customers happy is the holy grail of casual dining. In theory, it's all about snappy, friendly service (and good food). Keep the dishes coming quickly and diners will be chuffed. The result: waiters will remain unflustered. Easier said than done? Not necessarily.
Drake & Morgan, which owns four casual-dining restaurant-bars in the City of London, installed a QSR ConnectSmart kitchen automation system - a standard package is priced from £5,000 - when it opened the Parlour last year. Everyone was so impressed, the company quickly added the systems to its other three properties. "It takes the orders away from the kitchen and front of house," explains executive chef Rob Mitchell. "There are computerised screens both front and back of house that make sure everyone is reading from the same thing."
As a former head chef at the Tate Modern Café, Mitchell knows only too well the horrors of a busy service: "It can be very stressful, shuffling hundreds of paper orders. They all start to become a blur." The QSR system removed a lot of the panic.
When Mitchell writes a menu, he specifies cooking times for each dish. When the front-of-house team punches in the orders, they arrive in timely sequence in the kitchen.
"Say a fish and chips takes six minutes and a squid dish three. The fish and chips will arrive on the chef's screen first, then the squid three minutes later. Hopefully, both things will arrive on the pass at the same time," he explains.
The aim at Drake & Morgan's restaurants is for orders to arrive in less than 10 minutes, and ideally seven, says Mitchell. This allows a customer to enjoy a two-course lunch in 45 minutes, giving them time to reach the restaurant and eat within an hour's lunch break. On screen, if dishes have been on order for less than 10 minutes, they are highlighted in green; after 10 minutes they turn to yellow and after 15 to red. The result is that the average service time for a table among the company's restaurants is now between seven and 10 minutes, five minutes quicker than before the QSR systems were installed.
At Nostalgia Inns' Kidderminster pub the Punchbowl, director Adam Giles has also embraced technology - and a lot of it - to help manage the pub. As well as using customer pager system, Giles installed an HP IPAQ system at a cost of £10,000, which lets waiters use hand-held point-of-sale devices. When waiters take customers' orders, they punch it into their hand-held - a device the size and shape of a smartphone - and it goes directly to the bar and kitchen, who then make up the drinks and dishes for collection. With only 70 covers, it allows the restaurant to turn tables three or four times on a Sunday.
It's not just customers and food orders that can be managed by machine, either. As the orders fly in and out of the kitchen, even experienced waiters might get swamped by a busy night, forgetting to pick up dishes and muddling the evening. A waiter paging system, which Giles installed six years ago (for £4,000 combined with his customer pager system) lets them go about their service while informing them by pager when a dish hits the pass. "It stops all the screaming and shouting from the chefs when a dish is ready," explains Giles. "Each member of staff has their own pager and is responsible for it. One buzz means a main course is ready, two buzzes is for a starter or dessert, and three buzzes is a hygiene call; all the staff have to come and wash their hands."
All these systems, of course, come at a cost. That said, Giles's customer and waiter paging systems have both lasted six years, with a maintenance bill of just £100, so the £4,000 he shelled out on them seems a lot more reasonable when one considers it has equated to less than £60 a month. That's £60 a month for efficient, error-free service. A price worth paying? Make your own mind up - but think of those swamped Saturday nights when you do it.
Case study: speedy service the old-fashioned way
Is £1,000 too much to splurge on the latest technology? Not to worry, people have been running successful restaurants without the likes of paging systems and kitchen-automation technology for centuries.
One such person is James Horler (pictured), proprietor and executive chairman of Ego Restaurants, who also helped build up casual-dining powerhouse La Tasca. "In casual dining, the lulls are quite deep, but the peaks are considerable," he explains. "Managing those peaks is all about successful volume control."
The key is to make sure the restaurant is kept free from any waves of customers, he explains. At Ego, bookings are taken - both online and over the phone - in 15-minute intervals. "That way the orders can work their way through to the kitchen in an orderly manner so they are not bombarded". Hiccups can of course occur when people arrive early or late, although narrowing their table time to a 15-minute window tends to make customers more prompt.
For busy occasions such as the recent Mothering Sunday, an experienced front-of-house team is also essential, says Horler. And they have a huge part to play if walk-in customers start to queue for tables. The secret to keeping them happy? "The key is confidence. If they know someone is in control, they can have a drink at the bar and relax. If they feel no-one is on it, they will feel twitchy, and in my experience that twitchiness will last throughout the meal."
QSR ConnectSmart This keeps the front- and back-of-house teams in contact through the same computer system, removing the need for paper orders. Orders input by waiters arrive on screen in the kitchen in sequence. For example, a chef or manager can program the system to show dishes on screen when they need to be cooked, so plates arrive at the pass together. Prices start from £5,000 for a basic system and can go all the way up to £25,000.
WaiterCall A paging system that allows the waiter responsible to be buzzed when a dish hits the pass. Waiters respond to a different number of buzzes with the appropriate task. A full system with eight pagers starts at £750.
CustomerCall Similar to WaiterCall, but for guests. Waiting customers are given a pager that buzzes when their table is ready. Can also be programmed to alert guests with a voice message, such as a table number. Variants are available for alfresco dining. A system for 10 tables costs from £900.
For more information visit www.call-systems.com