Restaurants are one of the toughest industries in business. Margins are slim, and they are very service-driven, which means expensive (labor is the #1 cost in running a restaurant, aside from rent). Counter-service restaurants allow restauranteurs to design their service around quick turnarounds and a self-serve experience for their customers to save on labor costs and reduce operational complexities.
In this blog, we will go in depth on why counter-service restaurants exist and how they work.
Simply put, a counter-service restaurant is where a customer has to walk to the counter to place an order through a cashier. The cashier punches the order into the POS system, and the customer gets the food a few minutes later. Unlike traditional restaurants, there is no table service where a waiter/waitress takes an order and provides very personalized service to each table.
The main benefit of counter-service restaurants is that the operation is much simpler since the interaction between the customer and the staff is very quick. They say hello, place the order, and sit down, or take the order to go. There is very little training needed to operate a front-of-house (FOH) counter-service since the staff has a single station to take care of - the cash register, and keeping the counter clean.
Not every restaurant is a fit for counter-service, however. It is crucial to understand the restaurant's persona. A steak house would be a terrible idea for a counter-service restaurant.
There are lots of benefits in having a counter-service operation if your concept is a fit for it. Here are a few:
Since most of the experience is self-serve, restaurants can allocate their resources toward making good food quickly. Although it is true that the level of customer service provided will be very limited, customers will get good value for their money due to the more affordable meals.
Running a restaurant that doesn't have a hostess, and waiter/waitresses means that fewer resources have to be used training, and managing front-of-house staff. Front-of-house makes the biggest impression on customers since that's all they can see, but by limiting the customer experience to just ordering at the counter, restaurants can save on labour, management, and processes and in exchange offer better pricing for their customers.
Since customers are already self-ordering, restaurants can opt in for a more automated model to lower costs even further. Mcdonald's and other fast food chains have gone this route by introducing self-ordering kiosks. Kiosks can be expensive (in the tens of thousands of dollars), but companies like Cuboh offer self-ordering kiosks for less than $100 a month.
If you decide to use a kiosk like Cuboh, it can be a very effective tool to upsell customers. Leaving upselling to humans is ineffective because they can be easily overwhelmed by volume, and can forget to bundle items for their customers. Kiosks, on the other hand, are configured to upsell customers and collect their information for future marketing.
As we mentioned in the point above, counter-service restaurants are a great way to collect customer information. Either through a human cashier or through a self-ordering kiosk, customers will feel more comfortable providing their personal information in exchange for loyalty points or discounts. Being in front of a counter is just a lot more professional than having a waiter/waitress ask for your personal information at a table.
If you think that counter-service is the best operational model for your restaurant, then there are two ways in which you can design the "customer journey". Your decision should be based on the speed at which you can prepare your dishes.
After a customer places an order and your kitchen is making the food, your customer will have to wait to get their dish. A standing counter-service model will have your customers stand in a pick-up line, normally close by to the cashier so customers can move slightly to wait for their food. We recommend making your customers stand if your real estate is very limited, and if you will be able to make food in less than a few minutes. For example, coffee shops are a great fit for this model because orders can be made very quickly. Please note that if you are planning to use 3rd party delivery apps like UberEats, Grubhub, and Doordash, you will need to plan ahead so that drivers aren't occupying your already limited real estate. Having a 3rd party pickup station is very common nowadays, and we recommend using tools to help you control your delivery flow. Cuboh also allows you to consolidate your delivery apps into one system so that you can control your volume efficiently and don't need to use many delivery tablets to see incoming orders.
If your restaurant makes more elaborate dishes, you probably don't want to make your customers stand up for 15-30 minutes. You will also create real estate problems as you will have tens of customers just waiting around for their food.
There are two ways in which you can run a sit-down counter-service operation. You can hand customers a pager so that they are alerted about their food being ready, or you can call an order number (or their name) for them to pick up their food at the counter. The second option is to have food runners send the food to each table. Now, this will be a bit more complex due to the training required. You will need to fire dishes at the same time (although we have seen operations that run the food as soon as it's ready, meaning that everyone at the table gets their food at different times). The most common way of doing this is to give each order a number for them to display on the table. That way the runner knows exactly what they need to bring to the table based on the number they were given.
Quick service (QSRs) and fast service restaurants. If you can make food quickly, there is very little modification, and your operation doesn't charge a premium, counter-service is a fantastic fit.
Famous restaurants that do counter-service are Chipotle, Subway, Popeyes, etc... The main value proposition behind these concepts is good food, quickly, and at an affordable cost. You don't necessarily have to compete with other counter-service restaurants through price. Bigger brands have issues with quality assurance since they make food at such a crazy scale, so don't get discouraged about the level of affordability behind these famous concepts.
There aren't any specific flaws in the model because it is simply a fit or not a fit. It all depends on the idea behind the concept. For example, if you sell elaborate dishes, then your customers are going to be paying a high price point already, so they will expect a better service than what counter-service can offer.
Counter-service restaurants also have queues which can turn business away. With table-service restaurants, customers can at least sit down before they order. Queues and floods of people also make it hard for your restaurant to experiment with visual marketing since people want to get out of the queue as quickly as possible.