Lean Applied to Food Service

I recently had lunch at Babe’s Chicken Dinner House in Roanoke, Texas. It was a surprising place to find Lean principles at work.
They have a streamlined product offering with two items on the menu, fried chicken and chicken fried steak. They operate on a pull system. They cook the food as ordered. The side dishes are served in small portions, one of each dish per table. Refills are based on a pull system – you finish the mashed potatoes, you get more if you ask.
They have fact sheets and shirts printed with this:
“We cook small batches of each different food product to make it as fresh and good as possible. Most restaurants are in the habit (which is easier) of cooking up a lot of the products at opening – and serving out of it all evening long. We make one pan of biscuits at a time etc. It is harder and costs more but we believe it is worth it!”
It sounds like a strategy for a Lean service business. Is it working for them? The place was full at lunch, and Babe’s has won the “South’s Best Fried Chicken” for three years running in Southern Living magazine.
Another memorable example of Lean restaurants is at a lobster restaurant in Maine in the mid-1990s. Mr. Nakao of Shingijutsu Co. was working with the Pratt & Whitney factory in North Berwick, Maine. Mr. Nakao became annoyed at the wait for his food so he went into the kitchen and taught them about takt time and one-piece flow.
The lobster pot was divided in sections and set to a timer so that each new piece of lobster was added one at a time according to the pace of customer demand. The quantity of Standard WIP (number of lobsters) was based on cooking time divided by takt time. This cut down on overcooking and gave the restaurant manager a better ability to meet customer demand.
Back in Texas, ironically the client we are working with has exactly the type of issues (high inventory, poor quality, lack of visibility) they could avoid by producing in smaller batches, on demand. Perhaps we will take the management team out the Babe’s for lunch one day.