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Saravanaa Bhavan

I visited one of the many popular, tasty and authentic South Indian restaurants in the Bay Area this weekend. Going to these restaurants on a weekend during lunch/dinner involves quite the wait. The experience waiting for a table and then the food in these restaurants is quite similar to the experience waiting for lunch/dinner at popular joints worldwide. The lines are long and the waits are indeterminate but proportional to the size of one’s party. The commute times to get to the restaurant and the quality of food typically make people stick it out however long the wait and however angry/grouchy their stomachs make them. By the time one gets to the process of ordering and eating, exhaustion is almost as much the emotion of the moment as satisfaction. The assignment of vacant tables to parties is also inefficient with several groups of 2 or 3 people occupying booths and tables meant for much larger groups. I timed a party of five (including a baby) waiting almost 45 minutes for a table while couples who showed up later were led to booths that seat four, much sooner. All of this is inefficient and frustrating and yet thousands of people go thru this, weekend-after-weekend to sate their cravings for the closest thing they have to home cooking from their childhood. Experiencing this last weekend, I wondered if there was a way for the restaurants to serve as many customers as there is demand while also making the experience more palatable to the customers.

Here’s what I think they should do – Price the dishes differently on the weekends so that a to go or take out order is cheaper than ordering the same dish for here/to eat at the restaurant. I think this model will work. Here’s why –

a) Food first – 90% of the people who visit these restaurants (Saravanaa Bhavan, Bhimas, Komala Vilas, Ananda Bhavan etc.) are there for the food first, the company of friends/family a distant second and ambience a distant 25’th. While almost all of us would prefer to be seated with no wait, eating the same food elsewhere (park, car, friend’s house, own house) is a very good consolation. These restaurants should realize that their unique selling points are the food and should do as much as possible to feed as many people as possible. The reason people are willing to put up with long waits is because the food is so darn good. If the same food can be made available without the wait, I think customers will shift to wanting the same food with negligible concern for losing the ambience they eat in.

thali meal

b) Incentives work – Currently dishes cost the same or more if you order takeout. Some restaurants even eliminate take out during busy hours to service their customers who are at the restaurant. This seems ass-backwards to me. Why turn away customers who are willing to wait longer (as long as it is deterministic) and make the experience of those who are physically at the restaurant, much worse? By pricing the take out orders cheaper and by providing the customers a deterministic wait time, the restaurants will incentivize the same. Incentives work in a rational, free market and I would be shocked if this did not make more families and individuals to choose ordering ahead and waiting in the comfort of their home or weekend errands over loitering in the corridors looking in to their smartphones while their stomachs rumble.

c) Takeout logistics are easier than ever before – One excuse for these restaurants all these years was that the logistics to handle and implement ordering is hard. However this is not true anymore. With startups like eatstreet, grubhub and many others, the task of integrating online or phone ordering for a restaurant is easier than ever before. The restaurants can focus on cooking and packing while outsourcing the hardware and software needed to execute to go orders and payment processing to established players.

This makes too much sense to not happen. Giving takeout orders a discount to increase the foot traffic into a restaurant and improve the overall experience seems logical and intuitive to me. Here’s hoping some one takes this idea up and runs with it…’Cos I am hungry and can’t wait any longer and there’s only so many times I can check Twitter in a minute.

6 Responses to “South Indian restaurants, wait times and incentives”

  1. Vishnu Vijay

    Hey – I like the direction of thinking – but the restaurant business is complicated. There are two fundamental space capacity constraints – one is seating area and the other is kitchen area. And then there are constraints of the chefs and servers. A restaurant could build out seating capacity for the weekend, but that means very low utilization during most days of the week. One way to fix it would be to charge higher on weekends to make up for the low utilization on weekdays. And adding takeout to the mix might mean that kitchen area needs to expand – further adding to cost. Also South Indian food is notoriously takeout-unfriendly – there is huge variety – from the awkwardly sized dosas that need to maintain crispiness along with small quantities of the five liquidy chutneys that go with it, to the “meals” with 15 small sides, as shown in your picture. It might actually cost more to purchase the materials/containers needed to transport them without spillage, which justifies the higher takeout cost. New business idea: there might be a market for Indian takeout cutlery.
    One of the ways they can expand capacity is by having only 2 person tables that can be merged, disintegrated to seat more or less people. Another is to have a standing fast-food self-serve area, much like SB in India. Another is to reduce variety and physical size of dishes, so they can be served compactly and quickly. And of course, increase prices on weekends. Another trick is to have a lassi/tea/coffee waiting/bar area to reduce the “perceived” wait-time for customers.
    Obviously, I care enough about service operations to have written an essay response on this.
    -Vishnu

    Reply
    • shyamuw

      @vishnu Thanks for the detailed response and pointing out some real challenges and solutions. Here’s my responses –

      a) I don’t agree with the unfriendly nature of south Indian food for takeouts. I think it is true for Dosas but for most other things like the different rices, idlis and thali meals, the challenges are no different from Chinese or Italian cuisines. So why not establish takeout using existing cutlery and packaging material for all items not names Dosas or Uthappams. And every restaurant I have been to, does this anyways. They have the materials needed for takeout and have accounted for the BOM costs in their dishes’ prices.

      b) I love the ideas of waiting areas with Chai/filter coffee or standing room-only services. If these places have the space to do it, I think it is a very tangible solution to this problem. I also like the idea of defragmenting the tables on the fly so as to ensure there are no seats wasted on the weekends. I don’t know why restaurants don’t do either of these because they both don’t affect seating or cooking space.

      c) I don’t agree with the notion that kitchen space/human resource constraints affect the idea of allowing for cheaper takeout. The restaurant is still serving close to the same number of people they always were. They are accomodating for the challenegs in pipelining out more dishes by knowing orders ahead of time and controlling the metric of ‘time of pickup’. They are also ensuring that those who show up, get a table faster. If the business booms in such a way that their existing kitchen space is not enough, that is a good problem to have, right?

      Reply
  2. Vishnu Vijay

    A few rebuttals-
    1. For mixed rices, takeout may work – but with the thali in the pic on your blog, i just don’t see a feasible solution w/o custom cutlery. Italian and Chinese dishes are comparable to sambar rice, but we have way more variety. Most of the Indian dishes I order for delivery arrive in terrible condition – usually spilt. And NYC is a mature delivery market.
    2. To maintain a certain service level(say a max wait time or delivery time) restaurants have to maintain a certain capacity. If demand peaks during weekends, they’d have to build out for the worst case, however pipelined/optimized they are. Random arrival rate of orders or customers is the worst problem for restaurants(or any production line) since it can create huge wait-times and in-process inventory, ergo delays(there is mathematical theory that proves this). So unless you can schedule pick-up times as you suggest, or schedule table reservations, this is a hard problem to crack.
    3. Business booming is only great if demand is uniformly spread. If demand peaks on just Sat and Sun afternoons for instance, utilization of resources will be extremely low for most of the week, leading to either losses for owners or increased costs for customers. This is exactly why bars have happy hours.

    Reply
  3. shyamuw

    @vishnu

    1. I have had takeout in the bay area a lot and while there is room for improvement I wouldn’t call it terrible condition. I do believe there is room for a better product here for sure. I can understand the additional complexity but I

    2. I’d like to try the scheduled pick up times with a +-15 minutes margin and avoid those dishes that have potential to not carry well. I think thalis can be done. Not saying problem is easy to crack. Just saying that process of making hungry customers wait 45 minutes can be made easier.

    3. I think this is a valid challenge for all places at all times. I just think solving the wait-times issue at the busiest hours can be done independent of this.

    Reply
  4. bagrat15

    I have been to Dubai for a couple of vacations and had take away and parcels from the South Indian restaurants there. They charge about 6 Rs extra for the take away (0.5 Dirham), which you can easily include into the meal cost itself to make the take away look like it is of the same cost as dine in. Also, the packing is neat. I don’t need to have anything other than a plate to eat what comes in the take away. They come with disposable covered cups etc. Appalam is packed air tight too.

    Also, there, during the Ramzan season, you cannot eat in the restaurants during the day. Some restaurants obtain permission to sell take-away. And all the food that go out that way still taste good, and maintain the texture. (except for the Dosas, probably. But you have to give in for that – if you want that crispiness, wait for your turn at the dining hall of the restaurant. if you don’t mind that, take away)

    I live away from home, and I like to eat out more than any of my friends or colleagues do. So, I sometimes have to eat out alone, so, I opt for a take-away. I’ve had take-away food from about 15-20 different restaurants in the few months that I was in Baroda. Also, I’ve had take-away meals in railway stations across the country (look up “Comesum”). What I know form that is that the established restaurants know how to pack the food of any cuisine. South Indian meals in little cups and bags, North Indian meals in shaped trays with compartments that can be covered to avoid one thing spilling into another. Thermal packing etc help keep the food warm too.

    That is far from how my dinner is packed when I have a take away at the dhaba near my place – paratha in paper (sometimes metal foil), sabji in polythene bags. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  5. bagrat15

    I have been to Dubai for a couple of vacations and had take away and parcels from the South Indian restaurants there. They charge about 6 Rs extra for the take away (0.5 Dirham), which you can easily include into the meal cost itself to make the take away look like it is of the same cost as dine in. Also, the packing is neat. I don’t need to have anything other than a plate to eat what comes in the take away. They come with disposable covered cups etc. Appalam is packed air tight too.

    Also, there, during the Ramzan season, you cannot eat in the restaurants during the day. Some restaurants obtain permission to sell take-away. And all the food that go out that way still taste good, and maintain the texture. (except for the Dosas, probably. But you have to give in for that – if you want that crispiness, wait for your turn at the dining hall of the restaurant. if you don’t mind that, take away)

    I live away from home, and I like to eat out more than any of my friends or colleagues do. So, I sometimes have to eat out alone, so, I opt for a take-away. I’ve had take-away food from about 15-20 different restaurants in the few months that I was in Baroda. Also, I’ve had take-away meals in railway stations across the country (look up “Comesum”). What I know form that is that the established restaurants know how to pack the food of any cuisine. South Indian meals in little cups and bags, North Indian meals in shaped trays with compartments that can be covered to avoid one thing spilling into another. Thermal packing etc help keep the food warm too.

    That is far from how my dinner is packed when I have a take away at the dhaba near my place – paratha in paper (sometimes metal foil), sabji in polythene bags. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply

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