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Equipment: Keeping queues down and customers happy

13 March 2008
Equipment: Keeping queues down and customers happy

A happy coffee-bar customer is one who doesn't have to wait too long, so manufacturers and operators have focused on queue management techniques. Ian Boughton reports

What is often called the "Starbucks method" is seen, even grudgingly, by rivals as a blueprint for fast espresso service. One member of staff takes the order and the money, and the order is called to the barista who pulls the espresso shots a second "milk barista" works the steam arm, dispenses the milk, and deposits the finished drink on a serving counter. With luck and planning, the drink and the customer get there at more or less the same time.

However, both the queues and the drinks have continued to get bigger, and so machine makers and operators alike have turned their thinking to the problem of improved speed.

Whether speed is a matter of mechanics or strategy is a big debate. The makers of fully automatic espresso machines claim to have the answer, but there is a lobby which says that clever manual work is even faster.

"We ran an experiment called Espresso Robot Wars," reports Angus Mckenzie, managing director of the Metropolitan Coffee Company, distributor of La San Marco espresso machines.

"We took a traditional machine, a traditional machine with auto-frother, a bean-to-cup, and a bean-to-cup with powdered milk, and we used them to produce batches of the most popular drinks in a mix of typical orders.

"We found, conclusively, that the fastest system is a traditional espresso machine with manual foaming. A bean-to-cup is slower than a manual espresso machine, and auto-foaming is slower than foaming by hand. We concede that it leaves your hands free to do other jobs, but as an auto-frother injects steam more slowly than a manual steam wand, the manual machine still wins."

Metropolitan stands with the companies who say that speed comes from good staff management and tactics - typically, the system of "calling the line". In this, counter staff take orders for perhaps the first six people in line if any two people are having the same drink, they are both made at once, which can save between 30 seconds and a minute.

"Calling the shots, so that drinks are made to suit the speed of the queue, is vastly more relevant than measuring how long the brew itself takes," says McKenzie. "The biggest time hazard is milk foaming, now exacerbated by unfeasibly large mugs of coffee. So the scientific approach is to assess how long it takes you to foam two or four lattes, and this tells you how far you can call down the queue."

Speed strategy goes beyond that, says McKenzie. "A very important point is whether to serve people their coffee while they're still in the queue, or at a pick-up point, which is the Starbucks method. A customer staying in line gets frustrated, but at the pick-up point they're more relaxed.

"The next step is getting them to leave the pick-up point. Don't place the condiments there have them elsewhere, and people will move along, and you have eased your congestion."

A chain that has done many complex calculations about speed is Krispy Kreme, where the head of training, Adam Wilkin, uses Rancilio machines from the Coffee Machine Company. "A long time ago, we proved that automatic machines are significantly slow," says Wilkin. "A manual three-group machine will outperform any other machine, so long as you have put all your staff through proper training."

Here, he says, comes the secret of testing new developments. A significant one is the new Rancilio portafilter, which holds 22g of coffee.

This is because of a problem that has arisen with the newly popular 16oz and 20oz takeâ€'away sizes. A 7oz cappuccino requires one espresso shot, and a 14oz mug requires two shots, which can be easily handled with a standard portafilter. A 16oz drink requires three shots, which means the barista either has to brew a time-consuming extra shot or take the cheap way out and put only two espressos in, even though the result will taste weak.

The Rancilio Classe 10 machine is built to take a 20oz takeâ€'away mug, and the three-shot portafilter allows for three shots to be poured in one pass. Combined with new developments in automatic steam wands, which froth to a preset temperature, this promises a big time saving.

An auto-frother can speed things up, even for an experienced counter hand. The new Rancilio i-steam might possibly be the fastest auto-frother in the world, taking 500ml of milk from 10°C to 65°C in 30 seconds, and could be worth an extra pair of hands at busy times.

Matthew Algie, the Glasgow roaster, has introduced a unique espresso machine which almost enforces good teamwork. The Elektra Kappa has two steam wands at one side, with the two brewing heads at the other.

"This allows for some staff to be dedicated to shots and others to milk without them getting in each other's way," says marketing manager Colin Hopkins.

Keeping your staff in the right place produces speed, agrees Michele Young, retail director at BB's Coffee & Muffins. "The highest number of customers we have served in one hour is 195. This was not achieved by having lots of staff on shift it was by communication.

"Before a busy shift a store manager holds a ‘buzz session' to reinforce area discipline, which is about keeping the right people in the right place and not straying from their designated role. We work the buddy system, with the person at the till teamed with a runner who talks to the barista, and we now also have a section of floor called the ‘red zone'. Someone is always present in that area facing the customers, and our espresso machines are positioned so that the majority of staff are always customer-facing, and no customer is ignored. Our speed comes from testing many such systems, and lots of practice."

An alternative suggestion comes from Martin Lines, marketing director, Nestlé Professional. "You can't rush a quality espresso. With a traditional roast-and-ground espresso machine, the optimum extraction time is 23-25 seconds, so your greatest time savings are to be gained using a soluble coffee machine. The Nescafé Milano can deliver a café-style drink from start to finish in less than 15 seconds."

This has been tested in some railway station buffets offering a choice of a traditional cappuccino or a soluble-coffee one, at maybe 30p difference in price. The serving staff say that each has its following among passengers.

Douwe Egberts has its own solution. Its Cafitesse product comes as is a liquid coffee that has been roast and ground, but then concentrated. The machine at the customer end reconstitutes it. The Cafitesse C60 can deliver a cappuccino in under 10 seconds, says marketing manager Helen Cridge, and cost can be as low as 20p per cup.

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