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Some Assembly Required: Creating a Great Workflow for Your Cafe

In the field of psychology, the concept of “flow” was first introduced by a man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s not …

By Dave Eagle

The work flows like the coffee at Baker Bros.
The work flows like the coffee at Baker Bros.

In the field of psychology, the concept of “flow” was first introduced by a man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s not really surprising to me that a guy with a name like that would dedicate his life’s work to the idea that humans can be fully immersed in an activity with “energised focus.” It takes all my powers of concentration not to be distracted while trying to pronounce Csikszentmihalyi.

Athletes refer to this state of mind as being “in the zone,” while employees at cafes refer to it as “going to work.” In all cases, “flow” facilitates the efficient completion of whatever the task at hand is, with as little input from your overactive brain as possible. The term itself was adopted because people who report being in the zone describe it as a near out-of-body experience as if being carried away by a current of water.

For repetitive, tedious tasks, flow is essential to peak performance. The idea of “workflow” for teams of people is just basic flow on a larger scale. By creating a good workflow at their places of business, owners/managers provide the current that carries their team along to a quality, finished product.

Done right, a good workflow will reduce the time, money, and manpower needed to accomplish the tasks involved in any kind of production process.

creating a workflowThe first moving assembly line of the industrial age demonstrated, almost overnight, the benefits of an efficient workflow. In 1913, the Ford Motor Company began production using this method; the time it took to assemble the 3,000 parts needed for a Model-T auto went from 12 hours to 90 minutes.

This enabled Ford to drop the price of the car from $850 to $300, opening up entirely new markets of people who until that time couldn’t afford such a purchase.

Though you’re not building cars in your cafe, the benefits of improving efficiency for producing even a tiny little thing like a cup of coffee remain the same. Lower overhead means lower prices; faster production means more customers served.

If you haven’t given much thought to the workflow of your cafe, you’re most likely short-changing yourself while overcharging your customers—and possibly wasting their time.


The idea of an assembly line can be adapted and applied to almost any product that’s going to be assembled by a team of people, even if that product can easily be assembled by a team of one. Let’s say you’ve got one person behind the counter, and she’s taking orders and payments before pouring the cup of coffee; a simple task like this could take anywhere from 3-5 minutes.

One customer walks into an empty shop and is out pretty quickly. Not so bad. But what happens when 10 customers come in within a couple of minutes of each other? Customer number 10 is looking at 30-50 minute wait time for his cup of coffee. Adding one more employee doubles your staff and it will cost you more in overhead, but the speed increases by more than a factor of two.

Different tasks are being handled simultaneously instead of sequentially, and the increase in sales per hour should offset the extra cost involved in paying two employees. How many people you put behind the counter depends on your menu and your profit margins, variables that need to be considered when you’re designing the best possible workflow.

And while you may not get it right on the first try, having access to detailed sales reporting out of your POS can help you to understand the cost of doing business vs. revenue so you can tweak your employee schedules accordingly.

Once you’ve come up with a preliminary plan for the way orders are going to be taken and pushed through to completion, there are a number of other ways to optimise your use of time and space.

  • 603924_754839077878942_1785059982_nThe physical layout of your behind-the-counter stations should be planned with great deliberation.

    The placement of appliances and ingredients should follow the order of assembly. Ford Motors didn’t start the line with an engine and then build the shell of a car around it because that makes no sense. Likewise, don’t put your espresso machine right next to the dishwasher.

    Nor should you stack cups near the end of the line where customers are awaiting their drink. Maybe it only takes 5 seconds to grab a cup and head back to the where the beans and grinder are, but you can’t think in terms of how fast you can fulfill one order.

    If your business plan has revenue projections (which it totally should), you can figure out from that how many cups of coffee you’re expecting to serve in a day; multiply that number by the extra 5 seconds your cup placement costs you, and that’s how much time you’re wasting.

  • Configure your POS / order management system to handle the communication required to get the order from your customers’ mouths to your employees’ brains.

    With remote kitchen printers or displays screens, the simple act of entering the order can route all the necessary info directly to the appropriate station. Configure it so that if someone orders a cup of coffee and a bagel, the coffee order goes to the coffee station, and the bagel order goes to the food station.

    With names or order numbers attached, the two items can meet up at the end of each line and then  handed off to the person who ordered them.

    Photo by Nicholas Lundgaard (Flickr)
    Photo by Nicholas Lundgaard (Flickr)
  • Identify prep procedures that can be handled during slower times so that you’re never unprepared for the inevitable rush.

    Refilling coffee urns, cleaning up stations, adding more beans to the grinder—these are all things that take time away from your customers if they’re done at an inopportune moment.

    Meanwhile, your employees shouldn’t be on a break just because no one’s in the store. Breaks are for break time, and downtime is the perfect opportunity to get things in order to keep the work flowing when your next batch of customers arrives.

  • Document your workflow as you’ve defined it and leave it somewhere that’s centrally accessible for easy reference.

    That doesn’t just mean a printout hanging on a wall—using time management add-ons like TimeForge, for example, you can create a set of digital files that can be used to onboard/train new employees. And if you update any procedures, there’s just one place your employees will have to look to stay up to speed on the processes you’ve altered.