How much faster can we go? So maybe not the question we asked driving the food truck down the interstate with a fully-stocked kitchen, two 100-lb propane tanks strapped to the back, and the occasional unseatbelted human being in the back (usually me). The answer then was, pretty darn slow. Every other time, though, we asked ourselves “how can we be faster and more efficient?” It was a daily challenge that meant continuous improvement. There was a payoff though. As they say, time is money. That certainly holds true on a food truck. Unlike a restaurant or concession tent where you can serve many people at once, a food truck limits you to a one-in, one-out system. The faster you can get people through your line, the more revenue you can generate and the less you leave on the table.
So how fast could we go? That answer was, pretty darn fast. At peak times, at big music festivals like Bonnaroo, we were serving 120 customers an hour for several hours straight. That kind of speed and efficiency didn’t happen overnight. It came from continuously evaluating our processes, looking for bottlenecks, and making improvements. Those improvements came in all shapes and sizes. It was anything from changing to a spoon with a longer handle, to happily removing an oven that took up 25% of our usable space and burned me at least once or twice a week.
The one change we made that I remember having the most significant improvement was hooking up a second monitor that mirrored our point-of-sale screen. Early on, we had to wait on tickets to print before making food. Those tickets had to wait on our cashier to finish inputting orders. Our cashier had to wait on the customers to decide what they wanted. And the time for those decisions sometimes made me wonder. There was a lot of time lost in that system which was made worse when customers ordered multiple items. Adding a second screen that mirrored the point-of-sale screen allowed us to start building orders as they were being inputted real-time by our cashier. We were no longer waiting for large orders to be completely keyed or waiting on customers to dig for their money. The maker could make as the order was being keyed in and call out drink orders as they came. Even that wasn’t fast enough for us. We got to the point where the drink/service person used the screen for pulling utensils and drinks while the make station person listened to the customer directly to beat the cashier typing in the order. We were so fast, that a customer changing their mind mid-sentence often meant a redo on the make station. We perfected “the shake” which made the top add-on ingredients pop swiftly off the top of the bowl and into the garbage can for a quick redo. Uncorrectable mistakes became someone’s lunch that day. Having to eat all your mistakes lost its appeal in short time and you quickly found a sweet spot if you were making. So I guess there is such a thing as being too fast. I wish I could describe the shock we saw in customers’ faces when their customized order was poking out the service window waiting for them before they even had their wallets put away. Most orders were ready before they finished paying.
The lesson is that there is always room for improvement no matter what type of business you’re in. Find the bottlenecks and fix them. Also keep in mind that many little improvements add up to a big improvement. The second screen wasn’t the ending point. We supplemented it with other improvements like improved button layouts on the point-of-sale screen, adding stanchions to keep customers in orderly lines, or putting menu boards out so customers knew what they wanted before getting to the window. At events and festivals, we even posted staff outside the food truck to expedite the process of customers getting their food. This facilitation was especially helpful at music festivals where most of our customers were… let’s just say they were moving at a slower, more “leisurely” pace.
One final thought is to engage your team. You’re only as strong as your weakest link. Everyone on our team had the same motivation to look for improvements and was empowered to implement them because we knew it meant more revenue and, more importantly, a better customer experience.
On March 7, join Henry and the rest of our team at Food Biz Day, a daylong conference and marketplace for food entrepreneurs!