Cafe Culture

A recent combination of business and vacation travel afforded me the opportunity to fuel my voyeurism of retail and service outlet processes in diverse locations such as Melbourne, London, San Francisco, Sydney and Hong Kong. What is immediately apparent is that café culture is ubiquitous, high streets everywhere dominated by vendors of freshly brewed coffee. However, regardless of location, chain, or vendor, what also appears universal in the execution of their business is the complete lack of understanding that there is a relationship between taking and fulfilling your order!

As a customer you are forced to adopt the fast food service model of Select – Pay – Collect, where the process is meant to benefit from the division of labour and plays out in series rather than in parallel. Most establishments now operate this production line method where you are corralled into line to give your order to barista #1 at the register, during which you choose what you want and they take your order (Select). They then take your tender (Pay), and pass on your requirements to baristas #2 and #3 to complete the order (Collect). All well and good you might think, but have they ever considered the problem of ‘line balancing’ [1]?

Most don’t use the register (i.e. the place the order is captured), to pass the order down the production line. Instead they rely on a quaint ‘shorthand’ that has emerged for your ‘skinny latte, decaf, double shot with Mocha to go’, that gets scrawled onto the side of the waxed paper cup with a thick black indelible pen, sometimes this will also include your name to avoid any confusion as you collect. The cup then becomes your order docket in this process, which often can’t be read by those making up the order, and completely breaks down as a process if the customer decides to drink ‘in’, whereby they switch to using ‘real’ crockery. An alternative approach is to call out aloud the order in the hope that barista #2 is able to tune-in above the music, remember, and then accurately fulfil the order especially as they are likely to be mid way through the previous order while doing this.

Closely-coupled retailing: Has anyone studied the relationship between the length of time it takes to capture an order, versus the time taken to prepare the drinks? How often have you got 2 or 3 barista’s taking orders (at say sub one minute per transaction), and only one barista making-up the orders (at say 2-3 minutes per order)? Once you have ordered and paid you are hostages to the process with no alternative but to soak up the experience of your bespoke order being prepared to your exact specification! Then add to this mix the purchase of food, loyalty schemes, and this all becomes a real mess! The reaction of most establishments to more customers arriving is to increase their capacity to take orders, leaving the poor barista preparing the drinks to fall even further behind. Why do they choose these busy times to merchandise their stock, and if all you want is that Mozzarella and Tomato Pannini to go (without any hot drinks) you also get caught up in this dysfunctional production process? “Sorry about the wait” becomes the chant of the flustered barista as they hand over a double mocha with extra cream, and then all those awaiting drinks eagerly look at each other to establish ownership. And the poor customers who ordered their drinks for consumption on the premises are still waiting!

One Bakery and Coffee Company I recently frequented proudly displayed the heritage of the establishment as “trading since 1906”. I think some of its customers could still be awaiting their order. Finally, in the interest of ‘balance’, I did come across one female barista who demonstrated beyond any doubt the ability of the female of the species being able to ‘multi-task’! Not only could she remember several orders, but would also prepare the drinks, and take payment what appeared to be simultaneously. No line balancing problem here!

[1] Assigning numbers of operators or machines to each operation of an assembly line so as to meet the required production rate with a minimum of idle time.

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