The science of better hotel breakfasts

I have just returned from a short holiday which meant that Tina and I stayed in seven different hotels (in Germany and Austria, thank you for asking).  Since new experiences often lead to questions about the efficiency of the system that one observes, I have come back with a few ideas.

In each hotel, we had a breakfast buffet.  Provision of food like this raises several questions that  Operational Research can contribute to, but -- as is often the case -- the users are too small to consider analytic methods.  So they use heuristics, which are successful in most cases.

So, here are three problems for the hotel manager:
(1) Inventory control
(2) Scheduling of replenishment of food
(3) Layout of the items on display

(1) is concerned with ensuring that the supplies on the sideboard are sufficient, and therefore you need staff to monitor the levels of each item.  They staff can use rules of thumb to judge when the bowl of yogurt, jug of milk, or tray of cold meat needs to be replenished.  But there are hidden inventory problems, such as stock rotation.  Some items on the sideboard are emptied from the top, and refilled at the top, which may mean that the material at the bottom of the container is not touched during the day.  Care therefore is needed to ensure some rotation of such items.  One hotel had a very neat silo for cereals, with the cereal being removed from close to the bottom, and the container refilled from the top.  But we wondered how they staff managed the rotation of jam.

(2) is particularly concerned with replenishing hot food -- on the sideboard it is kept in bain maries or chafing dishes, and again there need to be heuristics that the kitchen can follow, knowing that cooking some items takes a non-negligible amount of time.  One hotel had a large tank of boiling water for those of us who wanted to drink tea, and we were horrified to see it being refilled by a waitress who had to raise a10 litre pot of boiling water to the top of the tank (her eye level) and pour it in.  Alternatively, in smaller places, food can be cooked to order, which reduces the problem of scheduling.

(3) means understanding the flow of the guests past the sideboard, and the amount of time that is spent at each station.  There are lessons from planning production lines which might be brought to help, but the psychology of different guests would need to be studied.  What I eat for breakfast will be different from what Tina eats, and from practically every other guest.  And -- even when you think that all guests are catered for -- someone will prove exceptional.  On successive days I watched people mixing jam and plain yogurt; one filled the bowl with yogurt and added jam, the other put the jam in first. 

We observed two neat solutions to everyday problems: provide a small rubbish bin on the breakfast table for waste butter wrappers and the like, so waste doesn't get into the dishwasher; provide very small bowls for jam and honey, to be filled from the large containers on the sideboard.  


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