The waiter and the lemon

As we all know, enforced social distancing has drastically changed everything about our old shopping habits and behaviours. All retailers are working out how to keep their staff safe, rearrange their floor space, how they serve customers and how to take payment.

The key element is how to remain as profitable with less people coming through the door. This dilemma and the flexibility required to come up with innovative solutions reminds me of an old story about Pizza Express.

When life gives you lemons, what do you do? The old adage says you should make lemonade, but at Pizza Express waiters don’t make lemonade they just serve it. They do have to slice them thinly for their client’s gin or vodka though. Well they used to. Company policy dictated that as the waiters had to make drinks, they also had to cut up the lemons. Drink preparation is for waiters - food preparation is for chefs.

Even then it was still hard to fill a restaurant, so efficiency and cost control are seen as essential to success. The guys at Pizza Express were keen to analyse their operations and look for key financial savings wherever they could. But what’s that got to do with lemons?

The problem with splitting drink and food preparation between types of staff led to incredible inefficiency. Knife-wielding pizza chefs are chopping things all the time and are dressed and trained accordingly. Waiters aren’t.

If you’re laying tables, smoothing out napkins and polishing glasses, the lemon cutting interrupts your routine. Off you go to wash your hands, clear a workspace, find the chopping board and sharpen the knife. You get going with the slicing and then clean up afterwards and put all the equipment back. 

If you think about it, it must take at least 10 minutes maybe more. For a chef with his workspace prepared and his knife at the ready? Probably less than 30 seconds. By spotting this and simply having their chefs chop lemons instead, the restaurant chain apparently made “significant financial savings.” That was according to Pizza Express Chief Executive Richard Hodgson in an interview with the BBC back in 2015.

The pizza chain’s simplistic reassignment of the master of lemons is an idea that should speak to all business owners particularly in this time of crisis – the concept of increasing staff efficiency wherever possible will help retailers desperate to improve the bottom line.

Remember this lemon story and while designing the new shopping environment forget how we used to do things and constantly question your processes and staff roles. How are retailers in other sectors redesigning their operations? Is there anything you could learn from them? Everybody, most especially those who are operational or client facing, should be encouraged to make suggestions for improvements or to try something new. Small gains in productivity or getting customers efficiently through the retail space can go a long way to help retailers survive in the new world of social distancing.


Sue Nelson

More posts

  1. Home
  2. Blog
  3. The waiter and the lemon