Some BJ’s are allowing guests to order at a counter before they’re seated. / Photograph: Shutterstock
BJ’s Restaurants is trying something unusual for a sit-down concept: allowing guests to order at a counter before they’re seated.
CEO Greg Levin revealed on an earnings call Thursday that the 200-unit casual-dining chain is testing the quick-service-style option in a couple of locations to see how it affects service speed.
Surprisingly, the chain has found that guests who order this way aren’t necessarily looking to get in and out quickly. “They still spent basically an hour at BJ’s,” often ordering a second beer or other items, he said. That suggests they chose BJ’s for the experience or food but enjoyed the convenience of ordering at the counter.
“Now that being said, we want to be as efficient as we can with our table turns and give the guest that wants to be faster, the ability to be faster,” he said, according to a transcript from financial services site Sentieo. “So we’ll continue to work on that.”
BJ’s is making a number of efforts to boost speed as more customers return to its dining rooms. It’s updating its handheld server tablets to allow them to take payments, for instance, and also has a mobile payment option that Levin said can speed table turns by seven to 10 minutes.
It has also shrunk its menu by about 10% and plans to make more cuts, which Levin said should ultimately get guests in and out faster.
“If we’re able to be more effective in our kitchen and get menu items out sooner and quicker to our guests, then essentially our tables would turn faster,” he said.
While speed is one byproduct of the smaller menu, it is mainly designed to lower costs. And eliminating items without impacting sales has not been easy.
“Certain things didn’t work for us,” Levin said. For example, one of the options BJ’s cut was its wedge salad.
“And guess what, people that want a wedge salad will not switch to a house salad or to a side Caesar salad,” Levin said. “So all of a sudden, we lost side salads.”
The wedge salad will be back on the menu in July. And BJ’s will continue testing as it looks to make the bill of fare even smaller.
“We feel comfortable in the fact that we’ve taken the right amount of testing that we, for lack of a better term, measure twice and we’ll be cutting once,” Levin said.
For the first quarter ended April 4, BJ’s reported record revenue of $341 million, a 14% year over year increase. Same-store sales were up 9% year over year for the period.
That included roughly 2% better traffic and a 6% to 7% increase in average check, executives said.
Entering the second quarter—typically BJ’s busiest, with the combination of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and graduations—the chain is expecting same-store sales growth of 4% to 5%.
With pricing around 7%, that implies negative traffic in the low single digits. But executives said BJ’s has seen no customer pushback to price hikes so far.
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