The 21st Century burger: why isn’t fast food getting faster?

24 September 2014

Mike Curl

Mike Curl

Head of Finance, Services & Media

I’m by no means a fast food industry expert. More of an occasional late night consumer. But as career consultant, I’m always looking for missed commercial opportunities and ways to make things better.

Having missed dinner last week, I popped into Burger King at Marylebone Station on my way home. It was 22:38. I wasn’t alone. Many other hungry travellers were also trying to buy food just before their trains departed.

There was plenty of demand...
 


 

...however this is what we were faced with...
 

 

Yes indeed. There wasn’t a single item ready to go. Everything was being cooked to order… and slowly.

And I suspect many commuters were having the same internal debate as me.

“My train leaves at 22:48 in 10 minutes.”

“The queuing time is at least 4 minutes.”

“There’s nothing ready.”

“Cooking time will take at least 3 minutes.”

“That only leaves me 3 minutes to get to the other side of the station and down the platform to my train…there’s no way I’ll make it.”

“Do I choose food or the train?”

Food seemed to be losing as at last half of the potential customers were leaving the queue.

Solutions

Let’s imagine that this scenario is played out every night across hundreds of outlets around the UK. That’s certainly a lot of lost revenue potential. And there is really no excuse for it today.

Without thinking hard, there are at least two simple solutions I could think of which are largely complementary.

1. Predictive analytics

As businesses go, I suspect that fast food is well up there in terms of having the most predictable pattern of orders because:

There are a relatively limited number of products
Simplistic consumer behaviour patterns. We’re not talking about buying anything complex here where research is needed or there are many repercussions from making the wrong choice.
High volumes of transaction data which is (or should be) nicely captured along with time of transaction

So here’s the idea.

Why not try and predict what types of food are most popular at certain times of the day, and pre-cook them so there is stock when a customer arrives?

This would reduce average wait times, make better use of available resources and increase customer satisfaction?

This could easily be tuned by region and have additional drivers and significant variables such as local events e.g. concert or sporting event and weather.

In terms of downsides, yes there might be slightly more wastage as I’m sure there are strict rules about how long food can be kept warm for. But surely this is manageable and small in cost terms compared to the lost revenue / margin and fixed staff costs? Ultimately perhaps this would result in much less overall wastage. Especially if combined with the following solution:

2. Mobile order entry

Before I arrived at Marylebone, I knew that my game plan was to try and get some food before my train. This wasn’t an impulse purchase.

Ideally, I could have pre-ordered and paid for it, so all I had to do was pick it up at a selected time upon arrival.  

Pretty much everyone has smart mobile phones now. Mobile internet is common place and there’s even Wi-Fi on the tube. So there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to go to a “Burger King NOW app”, pre-order with an agreed pickup time and then have a QR code scanned on my phone in exchange for my food.

Make it so

Am I alone in thinking that both of these solutions would make fast food that much faster?

Predicting demand and preparing more in advance would cover the impulse purchase side of things. And a mobile pre-ordering app would cater for those of us with a plan. There is some evidence of this in other parts of the world, but I have to see anything in the UK.

Or as my wife says, should I just learn to be more patient and embrace queues as a normal part of life?

 

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About the author

Mike Curl

Head of Finance, Services & Media

My interest in technology started in 1981 when a friend’s father built a Sinclair ZX81 and then relied on the two of us to program it. I soon moved on to my own BBC “B” computer (thanks dad!) and amused the family with some very rudimentary INPUT and PRINT statements…

My passion continues but on a much bigger scale than I could have ever imagined.  Today, I advise business and IT teams at some of the largest organisations in the world, helping them design, implement and exploit the latest technology in support of their business priorities and challenges.

I co-founded Bluefin in 2002 after spending many years in the consulting industry, having started at Andersen Consulting in 1994.  With Bluefin, I have been fortunate enough to be involved with some truly ground-breaking projects and technologies over the years.

What I really enjoy is finding the business value of new technology and leading the pioneering engagements to implement it successfully for the first time. Barclays, a client I lead at Bluefin, has won several industry and partner (SAP) awards for the innovative work we did with them around enterprise mobility. At another client we’ve also been doing some truly amazing work with SAP HANA that has the potential to disrupt established business models.

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race