While the quick-service industry knows all too well the challenges presented by the sudden invader that was the introductory of COVID-19, we find many remnants of this shared experience in our service channel norms. For example, curbside options skyrocketed for many brands and though volumes subsided, they did not completely disappear. Kiosks, delivery platforms, and other methods of order fulfillment were initiated and augmented with great success, and restaurants are still utilizing those implementations today. That unprecedented urgency to “figure it out” often gifts us with the fruit of innovation. However, perhaps it’s time to “86” one still-thriving norm from the early pandemic whenever possible: guest-facing dry-stock.
Today, consumers walk into many quick- and full-service restaurants alike to discover this common place picture: an employee at a register or host stand, perhaps a shining menu board, and a box of napkins and condiments shoved in the corner. Or, a table neighboring a side wall mountained with to-go utensils, disposable cutlery kits, and random shelf-stable pieces of inventory. In 2020, the curtain closed on the theatre of the dining room and our additional spaces became employee break rooms, meeting tables, and inventory closets. In 2023, however, it may be time to do some spring cleaning.
Would your guest experience or consumer perspective improve even slightly if you de-cluttered your dry-stock from your dining room area, and let go of the litter of cardboard boxes floating around your front of house? Probably so. How can we ensure that the corrugated ends of out-in-front torn boxes aren’t interrupting the visual experience that guests have with our brand each day? How can we give our guests, once more, the gift of a visually appealing dining space?
Here's a generalized, step by step action plan to send the mess packing:
- Step One: Behavior is a Team Sport. Create consistency in the team’s perspective by asking questions. Before you set out to put your stock in its most proper place, grab a few key team members and ask, “What do you think guests see when they walk into our space? “ “Where else do you think this product could go, if we absolutely had to move it out of visual line of sight?” Recruit the investment of opinions and perspectives, then get moving.
- Step Two: Make Guest-Facing Inventory Uncomfortable. In other words, pull it away from the corners and tables it’s nestled in to get a true visual of how much has been stored in the guest’s eyesight. Make a list of your inventory and cross-reference those items with identical SKUs in the back of house, or wherever else storage closets may be in your concept. It’s likely some things can be consolidated into one place and, therefore, out of sight and out of mind for your consumers. If you don’t yet have the designated, organized storage space for an item, make the commitment to rehome it away from the guest’s gaze until you figure out how to regain some square footage in step three.
- Step Three: Save Square Footage with “Stock Suspicion.” Many restaurants were space-starved before the pandemic. As delivery consistencies were and are up in the air, extra materials were diligently ordered and set wherever they’d fit as room ran short. We were delivery suspicious, planning our inventory like trucks may never show.
It could be time to redirect our skepticism.
Stats show that nearly 50 percent of restaurants weren’t impactfully tracking and sorting inventory in the back of house to begin with, and great stock management begins with these systems. Take a big picture look at your inventory and become suspicious regarding what you need on hand, how these items are stored, and how often products are ordered. How much are we ordering and stockpiling simply because we are accustomed to doing it? If you already have a system in place to address this, use it. If not, some tips below can help you get started!
High volume items: A basic, helpful practice begins with counting high-volume items at the start of day subtracted by the end of day total of the same item. This information, paired with sales context and volume, will aid in determining what should be ordered to fulfill each day’s demand. Take a week to gauge your inventory levels and practices, then ask yourself: What are three to five items that my business overorders as a practice? More importantly, am I comfortable reducing the quantities as an experiment?
Low volume items: While you may need to protect your two-day cover of proteins and starches, is the same true for coffee stirrers on every truck order? Unless you’re a high-volume java shop, it’s likely the answer is “no.” Lean heavily into the “SORT” phase of Toyota’s lean methodology and examine where you may be able to relocate low volume items to free up space in your storage areas, and if you may even pause ordering these products. Suspicion toward our inventory norms will help clearly identify items we habitually replenish before they near depletion, forfeiting space and efficiency.
When all else fails, “red-tagging” is a tried-and-true method for leaders to get an accurate pulse on what is taking up needless space and contributing to a lack of organization in the business.
- Step Four: Make it “Light, Bright, and Clean.” Once you’ve found an organized home for your formerly guest-facing dry stock, make the spaces shine. Light, bright, and clean. Danny Meyer coined this three-part adjective when he described what guests desire to see as they choose a restaurant in this new era. The guest-facing bleak hue of cardboard boxes and the out-of-place items lying around communicate a lack of hygiene, Meyer inadvertently poses. With cleanliness more important than ever, it’s vital that restaurants keep organization at the top of mind for guests and employees alike. Use these three words as a barometer for how you may describe both your front of house and back of house, and resist the urge to revert to old behaviors of stacking things in around guest spaces when the next shipments come in.
- Step Five: Maintain A Mentality of Welcome “Here,” not Welcome “Home.” Horst Schulze once noted that while consumers often expressed a desire to “feel like they were at their home” vacationing in Schulze’s hotels, survey data discovered a small discrepancy in the sentiment. Consumers don’t want to be home, he said, where laundry was their responsibility and preparing dinner was on their agenda. Instead, they wanted to feel like they were at their mother’s home, or a caretaker’s residence, where the clean towels appeared in the bathroom without thought. Or, if a problem arose, they could have it solved with care. This same lens is true for restaurants finding their feet again after COVID-19’s new standards and lingering threats. As we figure out where to keep our dry-stock and how often to sanitize our surfaces, it’s important to remember that our guests don’t want to feel like they are at home, where the playroom is messy and the kitchen needs cleaned. After all, every mess we don’t clean up in our own home is a lingering problem that stares at us until it’s resolved. Consumers don’t want to be home, with the stress of a mess. Consumers want to be here, with our brand.
In a way, isn’t that exactly what guest-facing dry-stock has become? An emblem of the crisis and the mess that marked this industry and, ultimately, the world. The boxes pushed in the corner diminish the crisp visuals of the brands we work hard to build, and the “magic of making it happen” that we finesse as we wow guests with warm welcomes, accurately fulfilled orders, and dine-ready packages delivered to their hands and tables. It takes the theatre and the hustle of this magnetic industry and, somehow, reduces it to dull and transactional at best. It’s more than clutter, it’s a reminder. An emphasis on the line of demarcation of what “was” and what “is” and, while we will never “go back to normal,” we can certainly go back to magical. We will simply have to organize our way into it. One guest-facing box at a time.
Courtney Yancey works in professional learning, where she executes training experiences and consults to Operators, Staff, and brand leaders. Upon earning her M.A. in Organizational Leadership and a hopeful career in higher education, Courtney dove headfirst in the hospitality industry and spent her time in quick-service restaurants leading staff and profitability systems. She is passionate about pairing in-the-trenches experience with an academic approach. Courtney is passionate about developing operational leaders in the industry.