November 11, 2010

Huge Restaurants: Trade off between Factory thinking and Experience thinking

Two recent articles in WSJ have pointed out some operations of mega restaurants - both are worth investigating.  The first is from the largest restaurant in the world in Damascus.  Here is the video:

After watching the video, operations management folks like myself get a bit excited to think about the shear planning and organizing it takes to produce and deliver so much food every night.  The kitchen essentially becomes an efficient factory and the head chef like a plant manager. 

The next article is about the Tao in Las Vegas, sorry no video, but here a couple of pictures and quotes:

Seconds count because Tao's kitchen serves 1,400 dinners on a typical Saturday night, making it one of the busiest high-end restaurants in the country. While partially cooking dishes in advance isn't unusual in restaurant kitchens, doing so with quick-cooking fish is. That's one way Tao is able to keep the plates moving fast enough to get its legions of diners fed

click to see full size

Although it is only open for dinner, Tao operates 24 hours a day, preparing Chinese, Japanese and Thai-influenced cuisine. On Saturdays, the busiest day, the restaurant employs 57 cooks, eight chefs, 26 servers and 10 hostesses. It goes through 1,400 pairs of chopsticks, 50 pounds of rice and three gallons of Heinz ketchup—a key component of its kung pao sauce. A four-person set-up team folds 1,800 napkins, stocks bars with lemon, lime and apple slices and prepares Tao's over-the-top (think 20-foot-tall Buddha statue) dining room for the night, including lighting 269 candles. One employee does nothing but sweep for his eight-hour shift.

"In Las Vegas, everybody is looking for the big experience," says Rich Wolf, co-owner of the Tao Group, which owns Tao Las Vegas, 11 other restaurants and seven nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas. "It isn't your first thought for a quiet, intimate date," but it's where "people can go to when they want to be festive and celebrate and paint the town red."
The restaurant is part of a 60,000-square-foot complex that also includes a lounge, the popular nightclub and Tao Beach, an outdoor club (closed in winter) with a dance floor, pool and cabanas that offer food, drink and massages. Tao's strategy is to keep people under its roof, and spending money, all night long. Dinner is treated like a pre-party for the wilder antics upstairs at the nightclub. On a recent evening, two barely-clad models hired by Tao frolicked in a rose-petal-filled bathtub near the dance floor.
 I suggest reading the entire article - it is fun to get a glimpse at how they do what they do.

I was struck, however, at the contrast between these two examples.  The first Damascus video was nearly entirely focused on the operational execution that needs to take place every night - chopping, prepping, ordering, inventory, etc.  The article about the Tao also spent considerable time on the topics of inventory, receiving, and food production, but on the other hand it emphasized the work that is put into creating experiences, for example:

By 10 a.m., the four set-up staff started preparing the dining room. One employee donned a harness and ropes to scale the 24-foot-high red wall and place rechargeable lights in the 48 candles highlighting the Buddha that rises above a pool filled with swimming Japanese carp. A representative from the Venetian hotel's floral department replaced the rose petals that filled the eight tubs dramatically lining the entrance to the restaurant.
I have no way of knowing if the Damsus restaurant does not spend similar resources on experience creation, but I think the contrast is interesting.  One one hand, the factory approach is essential to ensuring consitent quality and delivery of food and the food certainly influences the experience.  But, the experience must also consist of more than just the food and the Tao understands that well. 

It is interesting to think about what the right mix of factory/production thinking and experience design thinking is right for specific service and how much resources should companies place in each area.  I suppose it comes down to where the value is being created - is it the output of the kitchen (factory) or the atmosphere and experience of the dinning area.  How much weight do customers put on each aspect?   If a service designer is too biased toward one side or the other (factory vs experience thinking) what will happen? 

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