Managing Restaurant Volume: Using The Open Menu Count
What is a "menu count" and why does it matter to the quality of a restaurant shift?
Lets put a scenario in play:
You have been waiting in line to be seated for about 45 minutes (it's a heavy volume busy night at the local Mexican restaurant, so this is not so out of the ordinary) this is a forgivable offense in your night out however because:
1. Some waiting time is to be expected
2. The staff was pleasant enough, and offered you a drink while you wait
3. You were also referenced to you the first come-first serve seating area as an option, etc.
Any points docking your night out due to a wait have been recovered and this restaurant has a clean slate chance to sweep you off your feet with this experience. There are two key factors that will come into play once you have finally been seated, settled and awaiting the arrival of your server.
1. Service (52%)
2. Food (48%)
You might assign them different levels of importance, since at this point you are damn hungry. You're not conditioned to preemptively account for the offset situation that your food doesn’t meet expectations, but a restaurant with a customer oriented bottom line will always be prepared for this. I stand by this ratio because I have seen the beauty of this ratio in play. Ive had to apologize for massacred orders, disastrously long ticket times, and forgotten meals altogether (Unfortunately these scenarios do happen when systems break down), but when done properly, honestly and with humility, these guests will return.
For the purposes of this exercise however, we are going to assume the food comes out perfectly as you have ordered it, it smells mouth-watering good and tastes even better.
This is where the question of return business comes into play:
*Are you more likely to re-visit the restaurant that had you waiting an additional 45 minutes for your food? Or the restaurant that had your entrée hitting the table just short of 20 minutes (an appropriate Friday night volume dinner ticket time)? Where will you go to spend your own hard earned dollars again? End Scene.
Lesson learned: The operational systems a restaurant in place can make or break the customer experience.
My personal management style is similar to that of a cheerleader team captain (my comfort zone being a former cheerleader for years), so I was always using team building activities or inspirational knowledge to make points and educate my staff. In my first managing job I made a colorful poster that I hung in my employee’s break room.
"The customer experience is the next competitive battle ground."
This was an anonymous quote that defines my purpose as a business manager and a true sentiment that I never wanted my employee's to forget. A customer is a "guest" to a restaurant. From the moment your guests enter the building until the moment that they leave: that is your guests' experience and it is the deciding factor on whether or not they will be back to spend their money there again.
Meal Times / Ticket Times
This is the time frame it takes from the moment your order is taken and entered into the computer, until the moment it leave the doors of the kitchen. To a guest it is the wait for their meal. To the restaurant it is the amount of time since that order came in, the time printed on the ticket is the noted factor for the restaurant since that is the exact time the kitchen received that order. This is where the term "Ticket Time" comes from. Menu counts have a direct effect on the ticket time of a table, which directly effects the experience of your guest.
The key players .
The restaurant is broken into two groups of employees.
FOH “Front of House” Employees- The employees that the customer DOES see.
-FOH Leaders, Management, etc.
BOH “Back of House” Employees- The employees that the customer DOES NOT see.
-BOH leaders, kitchen management, etc.
There are two key communicators on the restaurant staff designated to be the united voices of the BOH and FOH staff: The expo and the host.
The “expediter” or the “expo” is technically a FOH employee who takes all the food in the window and sends it out with the correct orders. This person acts as the sole liaison for the Kitchen to utilize in communicating anything to the FOH staff.
In many restaurant kitchens, on a busy night, there will be a host packing take-out, making what the host brings back into the kitchen as information, the “expeditors” best idea of the flow of things outside of the kitchen to pass along to the line-cooks. This makes one of your hosts the other key communication point of the night.
So, What IS a Menu Count?
Simply defined a menu count is the number of open menu's still out on tables. However, this is not to be taken too literally because a well-versed restaurant industry professional will tell you that any great server will take menus away from table when the customer has completed ordering. Even though a menu may not be “open” on the table, for the purposes of the menu count, any menu that has been left on the table will still be counted as an open. We do this because the people to benefit from the count are the kitchen and if they haven’t received the order yet, it is still counted.
How is a menu count used?/ Why is it important?
If an open menu count is all people who are sitting in the restaurant reading and preparing to order, the count signals to the kitchen the business volume they can expect for the next 15-20 minutes.
Back to the scenario we had played out in the beginning of this article: Lets say when you were finally seated, it was because a significant amount of people left the restaurant at the same time, allowing for space to be seated. What you are not seeing is that, there has most likely been a mil-second long lull in the kitchen, allotting the appropriate BOH staff members to prepare their station / communicate what they need from the walk-in, etc. This is a great time to call for a menu count. These moments of volume alleviation can set the tone for a smooth flowing kitchen for the night, or a night of mess-ups and food comps. This moment of breath is essential during a wait because there is so many waves of high volume food orders hitting your kitchen over and over again. Simply stated: the difference between waiting the extra 25 minutes for your food on a busy night is in the menu count.
Some other perks...
The menu count is also helpful for your BOH staff members to know also if they have been getting hit hard with tickets all night, they might ask for them semi-often waiting for the break in volume or a light at the end of the tunnel.
Finally, for all good business managers, a menu count is a vital part of the business operations because 2 things are riding on this number for you:
1. Customer experience
2. Labor performa
Volume shift= people who work until the business volume has passed, which at that point they are “cut”, they do their cleaning side-work, clock out and go home.
*You never want to cut a volume shift line cook or server too early and drown your staff with a hit of unexpected volume, a.k.a. hurting your customer experience.
*You also don’t want to be waiting hours you don’t need to be paying someone, to cut them.
Example: If it is 6:55pm on a Thursday night, you have 5 line cooks on making 10+ dollars an hour, 3 hosts on making an hourly rate, 3 bus boys on making an hourly rate, 12 servers on making little to no money, and a whopping 9 menus open in the restaurant, it is more than likely a safe time to start sending people home.
Effectively: it is a quick and simple operational procedure.
1. BOH LEADER ASKS THE EXPEDITOR ON ANY GIVEN NIGHT (OR EVEN A SERVER ANY GIVEN LUNCH) FOR A "MENU COUNT"
2. THE EXPEDITOR, IF THERE IS A VOLUME BUSINESS BREAK TO TAKE A WALK AROUND THE RESTAURANT EITHER PERFORMS THE MENU COUNT, OR COMMUNICATES TO THE HOST STAFF THAT HE NEEDS ONE PERFORMED.
3. HOST WALKS AROUND THE RESTAURANT WITH A SMILE ON HER FACE, LOOKING AS THOUGH SHE IS JUST WALKING BY, IS REALLY COUNTING THE NUMBER OF OPEN MENU'S OUT OF THE TABLES.
In Other Words...
In any business the end game is profit. We know that it costs 5x more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. Menu counts have a direct effect on the preparedness of your BOH staff in handling mass volume business, and can offset the potential for disastrous ticket times (a.k.a. unhappy customers). It is also a vital tool for management to know how to utilize in handling their labor costs, which is a third of a restaurants operating costs.
The importance of making sure that all of your FOH staff are at least cross-trained with the knowledge of how to perform a quick menu-count on the fly speaks for itself! Keeping our customer's happy is the main reason you are still in business remember: the menu count is just one of the many, MANY tools used in implementing systems to maximize your profits through better operations.