Fast-food chains feeling need for speed

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For fast-food chains, time is money. Recently, several quick-service restaurants have revealed strategies for speeding up service.

McDonald’s, for one, is testing a 60-second guarantee in select markets during the weekday lunch hour, when drive-thru customers are given a timer and a promise that if the order doesn’t arrive in less than a minute, the next round is on Ronald — the customer is offered a free lunch item on a future visit.

Jack in the Box is another restaurant company seeking to hasten its operations, particularly at underperforming units.

“We have certain markets and certain restaurants that are performing at a much slower speed of service than the rest of the system, and when we break down the reasons for that, it essentially falls into a couple of categories,” said Lenny Comma, CEO and chairman, during an Aug. 7 earnings call with financial analysts. “One, they don’t have proper staffing during the heaviest traffic periods of the day. Two, they are not doing the continuous cooking that is required under our assemble-to-order system. Or three, they are not following the basic workstation position systems that we put in place to make sure that we have the proper talent in the proper stations for the product mix and sales levels of that particular day part.”

Jack in the Box announced plans to invest in new cooking platforms to speed up cook times and new holding equipment that maintains a product’s quality longer.

“So, with the assemble-to-order philosophy that we have in place, we need to make sure that we are not moving to a cook-to-order platform on all of our products because that essentially slows us down,” Comma said. “And when we do the assemble-to-order, the requirement of the just-in-time continuous cooking creates a stress on the organization if the product is not held to a high quality standard. So, that is essentially what we are looking at. It is everything from toaster ovens to fryers to grills to microwaves. And it is essentially similar equipment to what we have in the facility today, but equipment that does a better job than what we are currently using.”

At Burger King, launching fewer menu items has enhanced service speed by reducing complexity in the kitchen, executives said during an Aug. 1 earnings call. Additionally, the chain this year implemented a program in its restaurants in which coaches work with managers and employees to improve consistency in operations.

“Since the program has been in place, we have already seen tangible results,” said Alex Macedo, president, North America, Burger King. “Overall guest satisfaction scores have improved 11 percent, and speed of service has improved 9 percent.”

Service speed is a key component of the value equation in quick-service restaurants. In a survey conducted by Technomic, Inc., Chicago, speed was considered an important service element in creating good value by 55 percent of consumers. Speed is particularly important for the large consumer segment known as “functional eaters,” who represent about a fourth of restaurant visits.

“In limited-service, one of the defining factors is service speed,” said Richard Shank, consumer research manager at Technomic, during Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference held June 18 in Chicago. “If you can't fit within the daily schedule of consumers’ lives, they’ll go on to the next place.”
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