The expeditor is your sentry at the kitchen window, the human linchpin who operates where the expectations of the seated customer — in terms of food quality, accuracy and speed — meet the capabilities of your kitchen and wait staff. That individual is the one making sure that every order — perhaps 30 or more at a time — is delivered with all items simultaneously, accurately, at optimum temperature, correctly plated and without undue delay.

Chipotle

</picture> Chipotle Mexican Grill’s highest-throughput restaurants handle 350 transactions per hour at lunch; average throughput is less than half of that. Source: Steve Ellis, CMG Chairman on Seeking Alpha transcript, April 2014

The expeditor is your sentry at the kitchen window, the human linchpin who operates where the expectations of the seated customer — in terms of food quality, accuracy and speed — meet the capabilities of your kitchen and wait staff. That individual is the one making sure that every order — perhaps 30 or more at a time — is delivered with all items simultaneously, accurately, at optimum temperature, correctly plated and without undue delay.

Old-school expeditors and chefs have long relied on mental calculations to accomplish that end. “Our studies show that cooks spend a huge amount of time just reading and rereading their tickets,” says Brian Sills, chief executive of Deterministics, a consultancy that performs motion studies and advises restaurant chains on labor management and other aspects of operation. Knowing the cook time of each item and setting multi-channel timers, expeditors have mentally determined and shouted out the start times for all of an order’s various items.

A kitchen display system, or KDS, loaded with similar knowledge for each step of each dish, performs that automatically, replacing shouts with screens. The screens at each station, showing only the part of the order prepared there — and only when it’s time to execute — also replace the still dominant station printer.

The system knows when a cooking task is completed because the cook tells it so by hitting the right button on a “bump bar” or the screen itself.

Kitchen Display System

QSR Automations’ ConnectSmartKitchen Expo screen shows the status of all active checks. Those showing green are ready to go to the table.

Kitchen Display System

QSR Automations’ system compiles and can display average window wait times and other objective “scores.”

Kitchen Display System

NCR/Aloha’s kitchen display system also shows the current state of orders and color codes those ready and those exceeding expected prep time.

“Kitchen printers can’t work out average delivery time, assess an individual line cook or calculate overall ticket time. It’s a one-way data dump.”— Tim Pincelli, Micros

Under the pressure of the Shrunken Lunch Hour

Sills says that kitchen displays systems make the most sense in more complex operations, like casual-dining concepts, where menus are extensive, cook times vary and the kitchen contains many stations. Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Red Lobster and The Cheesecake Factory are several examples of such chains. But under the pressures of under-an-hour lunches and other spikes in traffic — perhaps caused by online ordering — independent restaurateurs and small-scale multi-unit operators have begun installing these systems, too.

The biggest name in kitchen display systems is QSR Automations, which, unlike other firms, specialize in this field and work with more than 50 POS brands. But many of the features of QSR Automation’s ConnectSmart Kitchen, or CSK, system have been adopted by POS vendors who sell KDS as adjunct applications. These features include restaurant-wide, real-time views into the state of preparation of current orders. Orders lagging benchmark prep times typically flash in red. Items being prepared may show yellow, with time-in-process, while others in the queue are grey.

One of Deterministics’ projects was a before-and-after study of a KDS implementation in an upscale, six-station restaurant kitchen that employed more than a dozen cooks at peak periods. Before KDS, they were seeing 30 to 35 plates in the window during peak periods, waiting for completion or pick-up. Afterwards, that number was reduced to seven or eight because timing coordination had been optimized and servers alerted to ready trays. The result: More food served at correct temperature and on time — therefore, happier customers.

QSR Automations’ focus on the kitchen has allowed it to drill a little deeper into the expeditor’s supervisory features. For example, the “expo” screen has tabbed views into every prep screen at every station, where the expeditor might see who’s falling behind and could use another hand. Release 5 of CSK will feature dashboards displaying speed-of-service data.

At the prep-screen level, cooks can drill down into recipes, recipe steps and plating pictures — even video demonstrations.

POS Vendors Pitch the Expeditor, Too.

POS vendors, with their products at the hub of all restaurant data-gathering, claim selling points in the current and future integrations of their expeditor applications with every other aspect of operation. Micros’ product manager Tim Pincelli, for example, notes, “Our KDS has morphed out of the ‘virtual ticket’ into complete guest management. We can attach ourselves to the complete lifecycle of a guest check, starting from when that guest is seated.” Micros says that in November, 45 percent of new POS were installed with KDS.

With its JTech paging subsidiary, Micros also can integrate paging in such a way that the system automatically triggers the server’s pager to vibrate when an order comes up ready. Of course, the expeditor can do this manually, calling out to particular runners or wait staff from within the kitchen display or on a call pad.

Micros’ KDS app also provides summary views, to show all baked potatoes, say, for all current orders, alerting managers to the need for more batches or half-batches. And if cooks are backing up at one station, expeditors can instruct the system to offload some of the work to another, rerouting some parts of the orders to another screen at another station.

Pincelli says adoption is “working its way” down-market, to casual dining and independents. Asked how they demonstrate ROI, he says that while it’s hard to put exact figures on it, the chance to act on bottlenecks before a customer leaves the restaurant is important. Recipe and prep screens promote consistency of portion size, saving on food costs. Workers note a lowered stress — and decibel — level in the kitchen, saving wear and tear on employees.

Another major benefit is “round-trip information.” Printed tickets can’t work out average delivery time, assess an individual line cook or calculate overall ticket time. It’s a one-way data dump,” Pincelli says. One of his clients used the results of their throughput study to determine that it was taking too long to unpackage a supplier’s chicken. Based on that information, the client advised the supplier to prep it differently. Throughput data also feeds into Micros’ staff forecasting and scheduling tools.

Kitchen Display System

Individual menu items can drill down to preparation and presentation instructions.

Online Ordering Adds to Throughput Demands

NCR, like Micros, points to its Aloha POS hub being integrated with other application spokes. Jon Lawrence, senior director, hospitality solutions at NCR, says the growth of online ordering over the past year can put new throughput demands on kitchens. The online ordering modules sold by NCR and other POS vendors obviously talk to the POS system, sitting in the functional center of the data stream. Aloha shoots the online-ordered items to the right kitchen stations, the same as those entered by wait staff. Less obviously, Aloha POS’s online ordering module also uses data received from the Kitchen System when quoting wait times back to the customer. Knowing the number and throughput of orders, it can set accurate expectations.

“If a guest is sitting in a restaurant, he or she can see how busy it is and understand if service might be a little slower as a result,” Lawrence says. “But if I extend that to a guest ordering on a smart phone, I don’t have that benefit.”

On the management side, NCR also has integrated the kitchen system with its “Pulse” mobile, real-time operations platform. The tablet-based view can show a specific table whose guests have been waiting exceptionally long for their order. Lawrence says a manager can click on that table and drill down into what might be holding it up by hooks into the kitchen system, which clock in every order as it’s made or in queue. “I can see individual components of an order, and see perhaps that we’re backed up at the fry station,” he says. “Maybe we’re down one fryer out of three. Or maybe it’s a staffing problem. Here is the data you need to remedy the problem.”

On the employee side, cooks can drill down on any item to retrieve recipes and instructions, which can be especially valuable in multi-unit operations where one procedure and one recipe is automatically made available to every property. At the same time, it is useful anywhere turnover is high or new recipes are frequently introduced.

In the coming months and years, look for future integrations at NCR and elsewhere. Kitchen display systems will reduce waste by making inventory forecasting more accurate (see related story, “Answers to Rising Food Costs,” next page), and similarly sharpen labor scheduling by getting a more accurate picture of optimal throughput for a given employee mix. Integrations with guest management/wait list applications will produce more accurate wait times.

As with all b2b software, vendors will leapfrog each other in announcing new features. Those operators happy with their current POS systems should start by exploring the options offered by that vendor, before looking at richer feature sets with third-party specialists.