When customers enter a fast-casual restaurant, they head straight for the service line. That’s where they view the menu, place their orders, select from ingredients on display and watch staff assemble their customized meals before paying at the other end of the line. It’s also where, in the midst of the action, customers begin to determine whether the restaurant’s brand meets their expectations.

The service line is also where the restaurant’s systems for production, efficiency and thru-put from the time customers place their orders until they receive their food play a crucial role in determining the restaurant’s success.

Decisions made early on about a service line’s length, layout and flow must include the menu mix and staffing necessary to produce the menu and fill orders. “In ideal circumstances, it’s important to nail down the entire process first and not try to fit the process into a work station that is already designed,” says David Gemmel, associate director of productivity services at consultancy WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio. “We must consider the number of ingredients needed and where they will be prepared and displayed, space needed for smallwares and packaging, and the number of people needed on the line.”

“Often, tough decisions must be made about the mixture of operational efficiencies and the customer experience,” adds Bob Welty, vice president of brand, strategy and design at WD Partners. While Gemmel focuses on the back side of the service line and its efficiencies, Welty focuses on impulse sales and brand perceptions.

Efficiency, Transparency Rule Back-Line Designs

Upon determining the menu, operators and designers must conduct thru-put studies to determine the time it takes for customers to enter the line and receive their food. Part of the decision process includes how much of the preparation will be visible to customers, how staff will transport food from the points of preparation to the service line and how much interaction staff will have with customers.

“In a perfect world, servers face guests all the time and never leave their stations,” says Gary Jacobs, principal of New York-based foodservice design firm Jacobs Doland Beer. “It’s important to integrate front and back counter elements in a way that requires minimal staff movement so pivots replace steps. Also, there must be discreet ways to store and remove soiled items. We like to develop branded, enclosed, under-counter transport carts in order to keep these items away from public view.”

Organization of ingredients plays a key role in determining the line’s efficiency. Gemmel likes dual-rail refrigerated make tables. “These give employees more access to ingredients right where they need them rather than going into a drawer or a door underneath the refrigeration unit,” he says.

Giving ingredients specific, designated locations and displaying them in order of assembly help staff stay organized and move quickly. Leaving enough space between ingredients also supports efficiency. “If ingredients are in small pans touching each other, it is very difficult to keep items from running into each other,” Jacobs says. “With liquids that drip, you want to have a flat surface in between the containers so staff can easily wipe up the areas. This can be accomplished with a millwork reveal or an extra-wide spacer. The loss of density is offset by the ease of maintenance and preservation of ingredient integrity.”

At sandwich concept Which Wich, a horseshoe-shaped line at some units helps improve efficiency. The chain expects staff members to assemble sandwiches that fall into 10 menu categories with 60 toppings within 4 minutes — which includes 2 minutes for warming in a conveyor oven. “For efficiency, we want staff to move as little as possible, so we positioned a conveyor oven a little behind and in between the refrigerated rails. Staff just turn around from the line, use the oven and come back to the line,” says TJ Schier, president of Smart Restaurant Group and a Which Wich franchisee.

Selecting equipment that accommodates a changing menu constitutes another critical component of the design process. A menu may feature hot and cold items and change seasonally, so it’s important that staff can switch the bains-marie as needed to showcase different menu items. “When developing this type of flexibility, we generally assume that there will be a fixed number of hot offerings and a fixed number of cold offerings at all times, though the overall focus may change seasonally. If we have six bains-marie, we may specify two as hot, two as cold and two as convertible in order to address shifting seasonal demand,” Jacobs says.

Separating production of high-velocity core items and lower-velocity specialty items represents another way to improve thru-put efficiency. “We did a prototype design for a fast-casual concept that was holistic in nature in both the front and back of house,” Gemmel says. “We found that by disintegrating the production line into two lines, one for core menu items and one for specialty items, we could increase thru-put by 26 percent over the baseline measurements.”

Restaurant operators should also consider efficient replenishing of the food that service lines display. Containers for cold and hot foods must remain at the exact temperature they are held on the line and must be positioned out of sight of the main line until needed. At Chipotle, an early architect of the fast-casual service line, workers called “linebackers” patrol countertops, replace servingware and refill bins of food so other staff members and cashiers can keep a clear focus on customers.

On some service lines, staff members not only assemble foods but also cook. In such cases, induction-based cooktops continue to grow in popularity. “These allow operations to feature food theater while using less space than a traditional grill or range on the front line,” Welty says.

Induction elements in stone surfaces also allow operators to display chafing pans that can replace traditional steam wells. “Frost tops are another visually attractive way to display cold items,” Jacobs says.

Balancing what Welty calls “the romance of food” and the industrial nature of equipment remains a challenge. “For example, at a concept on the West Coast, a high-speed panini grill behind the front line heats sandwiches in a few seconds, and large soup vats hold industrial-like thermometers,” he says. “While the equipment brings efficiency to the operation, the concept doesn’t romance food to its full potential.”

Branding, Ease of Use are Front-of-Line Factors

Romancing the food and establishing brand positioning constitute critical components of the front side of service-line design. “The service line is usually close to the first impression and delivers the brand positioning,” Welty says. “Are the differentiating aspects of the brand communicated at customer touch points? Are food-theater opportunities used to promote fresh, seasonal ingedients or talk about what’s unique to the brand? Is it easy to make a decision? Is interaction pleasant? Is the food being romanced?”

While each represents an important design goal, these must balance against creating bottlenecks that slow thru-put. The first bottleneck can be at the decision-making point.

Promotional boards and menu boards must be simple and clear to enable customers to make quick decisions and keep the line moving. One such strategy is to install preview menu boards along the queue area walls in addition to menu boards behind the service line. Another is to utilize rotating digital menu boards that enable displaying a single daypart to minimize the number of items shown at one time. Chains including McDonald’s and Taco Bell now use such menu boards. Which Wich gives customers a bag printed with the menu, and customers mark their orders with a marker.

Service-line displays and access to ancillary items are also important aspects of the design. Welty calls these “line-busters.” At Starbucks, for example, customers are offered self-service menu choices displayed in refrigerated cases with multitiered display shelves. Ambient shelving and containers allow them to select music, mints, cups, cooking items, packaged coffee and other branded items before they reach the order station. “Shelving, baskets and other systems that display merchandise are good ways to defer customers’ wait sensation while they interact with products that support the brand,” Welty says.

Other front-of-line elements also contribute to customers’ experiences. “We design serving lines so ingredients are highlighted and the foodservice components, such as rims on pans, are minimized,” Jacobs says. “We prefer ceramic inserts versus stainless steel. In the best of all scenarios we use air pans lined with smooth, decorative materials that can be wiped clean.”

The fast-casual platform, which offers the perfect blend of convenience, transparency and customization, is continuing to evolve as new players enter the segment. For every one of them, however, whether pizza, Mediterranean, Indian or Mexican, smart service-line design is a prerequisite for success.