Robots and artificial technology may have generated more hype, but the technology that truly transformed restaurant kitchens during the pandemic may well be the rectangle of touch-sensitive glass that fronts a smartphone. And operators say the impact is likely to shape back-of-house operations long after masks resort back to something you only wear on Halloween.
After dining rooms were locked down in March and April, restaurants quickly learned that a bill of fare small enough to fit on the face of a phone was a significant advantage when customers were ordering delivery and takeout via their handhelds. Choices were easier and quicker to find. Plus, barebones kitchen staffs—often just a person or two, and frequently managers who didn’t know a sautee from a satay—had fewer preparations to master. Add in the purchase of fewer ingredients while cash was as precious as oxygen if they could even be procured, and the scene was set for a massive shrinking of menus.
Some of Darden Restaurants’ casual concepts, which range from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille, cut their bills of fare by 40%. Denny’s eliminated 24% of its options. Dave & Buster’s reined in its array to about a third of what it previously offered, to 15 items. BJ’s Restaurants, whose menus rivaled The Cheesecake Factory’s in length, reduced its options to 85 options.
Limited-service operations had the broader canvas of drive-thru menu boards to list everything they offered to go, but they, too, took a carving knife to their rosters. Taco Bell cut 12 items, including some longtime favorites. McDonald’s reversed what had proven a significant sales initiative a year earlier by discontinuing the offer of breakfast items throughout the day.
With the reductions, many operations discovered they were getting a better product, with significant savings in production costs and time. McDonald’s, for instance, trimmed its drive-thru service times by 15 seconds, an eternity for a convenience-driven concept.
“We transformed our business model,” Darden CEO Gene Lee told investors. “The first step in this process was to re-imagine our offerings. This resulted in simplified menus driving significant efficiencies in food waste and direct labor productivity.
“Our first-quarter results were significantly better than we anticipated,” added Darden CFO Rick Cardenas. He attributed the improvements in profitability to “the actions we took to simplify menus and operating procedures.”
Few of the brands that simplified their menus and kitchen operations made actual changes in the layout of their back-of-house areas. Rather, most professed that the efficiencies came from an intensified focus on core production processes, something that was difficult to do when 200 people in the dining room are waiting on their dinners.
The Greene Turtle, a regional sports bar concept, was one of the operations that turned its managers and assistant managers into line cooks, a switch that gave them a burner-level view of how their kitchens actually operated. Because of the lost efficiencies, they were able to spot, the chain now requires all new managers to log time on the cookline as part of their management training curriculum.
Will it last?
Industry veterans note that menu development tends to follow the back-and-forth course of a pendulum. Menus sporting just a few items tend to grow and grow as a maturing concept adds hooks to broaden its clientele, until a slowdown in service or a drop-off in quality triggers a reversal, a severe cutback in what’s offered. Time has yet to reveal if menus will follow the pattern and expand back to their prior lengths. BJ’s, for instance, has already allowed its offerings to bounce back to 110 items.
Still, the casual chain intends to keep its foot solidly on the brake, “and we don’t intend to go backwards on that,” CEO Greg Trojan said in the company’s quarterly conference call with analysts. “So off-premise [accommodations] and a more efficient menu, I think, are helpful items here to stay.”
Darden is attempting to shift the thinking of its menu development team to make sure its menus don’t bloat, said Cardenas.
“In their calculus prior to this, there wasn't enough weight put on the complexity of adding new menu items,” he told investors. “The challenge for the teams is if they need to add menu items to fulfil a need, can they do that without adding complexity?”