A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
In the early 1990’s, my business partner and I owned a chain of Pizza Hut restaurants in Ireland.
Reckoning ourselves to be great innovators, we spent around $50,000 (to us, an enormous sum at the time) on state of the art ‘ordering units’ – essentially, wireless hand-helds that enabled our wait staff to take orders at the table and send them instantaneously back to the kitchen, where a ticket would be printed out telling their colleagues what pizzas to make.
These gizmos, bleeding edge as they were at the time, nevertheless worked flawlessly – too flawlessly, in fact. So fast were the orders arriving back in the kitchen (and so mechanized was our pizza-making process) that if a customer changed their order even seconds after it had been transmitted, the originally ordered pizza would already be under construction back in the kitchen.
Even changed orders represented a small percentage of total income, our losses due to food waste went through the roof as the kitchen staff dumped unwanted thin crust pepperonis to make, say, stuffed crust ham and mushroom – and in a business run by margin control, this was a cost we simply couldn’t afford.
For weeks, we tried everything we could to staunch the problem.
– The kitchen staff should wait 5 minutes before starting each new order: that just caused chaos in the already frenzied kitchen as our hot, busy, low-paid, back-of-house staff squinted at tickets to see what the timestamp was then do the mental arithmetic to decide which pies to start making;
– The wait staff should warn the customers that there could be no changes to their order once it was placed: the expression on customer’s faces after just one night of trying this told us it wasn’t going to fly;
– The wait staff should delay sending the order to the kitchen until 5 minutes after the order was taken: No can do – until the current order was sent, the handhelds wouldn’t process any new orders.
Eventually in frustration we called the staff together at our flagship restaurant to tell them we were going to junk what had turned out to be an expensive flirtation with technology, and go back to the old way of taking orders – hand-written slips that made their way back to the kitchen at a more sedate pace, and which allowed for more flexibility with customer changes.
Just as the meeting was coming to an end, one of our wait staff piped up from the back of the room. “Have them hit send” she said. Huh? “Give the handheld to the customer and let them hit ‘send’ after they’ve placed their order”.
And that’s what we did. We turned the order submission process into a little bit of restaurant theater, complete with breathless explanations that their order would ‘begin baking the moment they hit the button!’ The customers loved it – and they got the subliminal message – once you hit ‘send’, there’s no going back. And although it didn’t eradicate 100% of the change order issue, our food waste cost dropped to a manageable level.
And I learned two things that I’ve have stayed true to ever since:
1. When you have a problem, don’t expect the so-called ‘smart guys’ in the c-suite to fix it: talk immediately – and mostly – with the employees who most have to deal with the problem every day, and
2. If you can make it fun, customers will put up with a lot (think of the wait lines at Disney rides).