El Pollo Loco’s recipe for higher throughput

el pollo loco exterior

The adoption of a familiar low-tech device and some tweaks to a central production line have cut service times and otherwise boosted throughput for El Pollo Loco, according to executives of the grilled-chicken chain.

The adjustments are relatively small but many. Pagers were distributed to all company-run units so counter employees no longer have to take a customer’s name and shout it out when the order is ready. That innovation alone cut wait times by more than 30 seconds, according to CEO Steve Sather. Noise levels were lowered as well, said COO Kay Bogeajis.

The concept also reconfigured a central prep line. It had been perpendicular to the counter, and was the place where employees cut EPL’s signature grilled bone-in chicken into pieces.

The line was shifted and redesigned. It is now closer to the drive-thru window, and turned so that customers can see the items being prepared. 

More prep was also shifted to the table. The sequence of the stations was adjusted to provide a smoother production flow. For instance, the hot and cold ingredients are arrayed in a sequence that follows the assembly steps for a product like a quesadilla. An employee wouldn’t have to heat up something, then go back to the cold ingredients, then bring the item back to the hot area to melt the cheese. “We don’t double-grill anymore, said Bogeajis.

The changes decreased the motions of the crew by 9 percent and cut serving times by 20 percent, she added.

In addition, “it’s affected every current and all the future items” because the process is more straightforward, Bogeajis says. An employee merely has to follow the line to assemble ingredients in the right order, a boon for accuracy and a nip in the time needed to train new hires, adds the COO.

The adjustments coincide with an effort to streamline the menu and simplify the builds. “Fried items took a longer time to prepare, so we looked at those,” Bogeajis said.

The objective is to bolster throughput, a goal of many quick-service chains in today’s sluggish traffic environment.

“We looked at higher volume units, and the easiest place for them to grow sales was at peak periods,” explains Bogeajis. “If you’re running 45 cars, you want to run 50.”

The new configuration is being rolled into franchise stores after being adopted by all company units, Sather told financial analysts in a recent conference call.

The changeover costs less than $3,000 per unit, says Bogeajis. To win the support of franchisees, ELP set up a mock unit in a building, right down to the fryer and grill. “We were able to get a very statistical sense of what can we do with these change,” so franchisees could see the actual effects, she explained.

Pagers are similarly being introduced at franchised units. The use of the devices in company units yielded insights into how long guests stand idle, waiting for their food.

“We knew most guests made use of the salsa bar while they waited,” said Bogeajis. “What we didn’t know was how fast we actually were, or how much time do we spend calling names.”

The next steps to bolstering throughput, she says, are similarly small but effective. For instance, the POS system is being simplified so that cashiers spend more time making eye contact with guests and less time looking at the touchscreen, hunting for a button.

Units are also switching to a single, larger walk-in, a move that cuts construction costs and presumably staff motion.

“Several of those things save us money, and some of them cost us money, so they balance out,” she says. 


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