Hacking queues – the “queuenomics” of grab and go

Hacking queues – the “queuenomics” of grab and go
December 18, 2019 Adam Stead
In Hospitality, Special Projects
queue for grab and go

This is the second part of a four-part series. If you’ve just arrived, try the first post on queuer psychology.

Alternatively, chapters 3 and 4 are based on queuenomics of casual hospitality spaces; and restaurants.

What are the queuenomical factors of “grab and go” cafes and quick-service restaurants? 

– If we were to look at a graph of how many people come to your store over the course of a day, there would probably be peaks and troughs. This is when queues form – as demand outstrips supply – and the point at which you could lose customers to a queue. The higher your peaks and troughs, the more business critical it is to manage your queues well.

– Because people want to consume your stuff off the premises, with good queue organisation, your output shouldn’t be limited by your space. The only thing stopping you is the demand you can generate and the number of people you can serve.If you’re a grab & go,  the health of your business depends on maximising throughput.

– In turn, because your business depends on a high throughput, we’d expect you to be in a high-footfall, high-rent area in which cutting down on space can save you serious money in your bottom line. That means that space is likely to be tighter as you hope to manage your queue well. 

Finally, grab and go venues are more likely to see lots of return business because – unless you’re in an airport – people are unlikely to travel a long way for them.

peak & trough

This example coffee shop is well above capacity in the mornings and at lunch – meaning that a substantial portion of their patrons will have to queue.

What do the queuenomical rules we should follow?

Queue Profile: fast, well-oiled, and capable of achieving length without deterring patrons. 

– While seats do attract customers in the quieter part of the day, your median customer cannot be a sitting customer, because your throughput would not be fast enough. One of our tips is allocate space to what makes you money – and lots of people coming through and not choosing to sit is what helps your bottom line. 

– In order to be economical, cafes like these require a high footfall, which is likely to mean that this is in an area where rent is high. That means that space is at a premium. You don’t need lots of space – and remember, an outside queue is free shop floor.

– Many customers are buying single and cold items and therefore a canteen style queue might deter cold item buyers. 

– Since customers are buying low value items, they are most sensitive to a queue and most easily deterred.

– Your queue will be one of the longest and fastest-moving of all queues, which means that you need to make it clear how the queue works

– A simple menu which is visible from the queue will prevent customers dithering at the checkout and improve throughput. 

Throughput is king 

Focus your efforts on throughput; with a good EPOS and an efficient, high-quality coffee machine. The less the barista has to travel between different areas of the coffee bar, the more efficient they will be. Shaving a few seconds off per cup will, in a high-volume location, add up to many more customers served per barista per day. Coffee sells at upwards of 90% profit.


What Queue Layout Could I Choose From? 


Pret a Manger


“The Pret” queue is defined by a large open space with a single central line. The queue is to pay; and then you wait for your food in the same area you bought. 

– Pret has four or five coffee machines along the back. You want the highest output:rent ratio you can get – Pret’s is a great solution for small space, large output. 

Few tables / high tables, which encourage people to only sit briefly with their food. These are comfortable enough, but they’re not fireside armchairs. Pret are allocating space to what makes them money – not people sitting down. 

Short and clear menus above the servers mean that anybody can read the menu from a distance; and know what they want before joining, ensuring speed. An open fridge away from the counter means that people wanting cold food can choose slowly and in peace, before they join the queue with their cold items already. 

– Glass walls make Pret feel more open where it has been designed to become crowded. The same size of queue in a dark room would be far less appealing place to stand.

– No real division of space maximises the space you have and avoids problems around overcrowding or trapping people in. 

– In many Prets, impulse purchase shelves which line the queue. You can figure out what the best impulse purchases are by examining your attachment rates for the main products for which you are queueing. 


A) This is among the maximum throughput layouts, and can serve the most customers the fastest. 

B) This will keep your queues moving quickly and manageably.  

C) There’s no direction for customers whether to form single or multiple queues; so depending on the exact shape of the room, there could be some queue uncertainty. 

D) It’s not over-engineered – this is a simple queue which maximises space and comfort for the large number of people coming in. 

E) It’s easy to parse. From a customer standpoint, the set-up is understood immediately. 

F) The queue feels airy. Some queues trap you in; this is not the case in the Pret queue. Considering how crowded it can get in Pret, it doesn’t feel suffocating. 


A) During slower periods this can be less appealing to sit down in for customers. This is designed to cope with very high demand, but doesn’t itself stimulate demand.

B) The “pret”-style queue is chaotic and can induce “queue anxiety” – see our video! 

C) If you have a fabulous large menu you want to share with your patrons, it’s unlikely to work here. 

D) Customers can’t see the food – so the menu needs to be really clear.

E) As with all the queues in this section, it works best when customers won’t be waiting very long for their food – 6 minutes is a good ballpark for when standers might begin to lose their patience.






The Starbucks takes the Pret model and adds a twist – that the ordering and serving stations are in different places. This is possible to do poorly, such as in some LEON outlets, in which you queue for your coffee in one place and your food in another; but is also possible to do really well. 

In many instances, this works best with long thin properties in which the payment is loaded towards the front and you continue further into the building to the seating area. 



A) Generally, this queue is often tidier than the Pret, which requires a large amount of standing space in the middle of the restaurant. The queue can be engineered in such a way that the “waiting area” is out the way.


B) Like “the Pret”, this is a high throughput queue

C) Unlike the Pret, there is less of a trade-off with regards to the quality of the sitting area; you can exercise greater control over how the queue works and therefore engineer where people stand to a greater extent. 

D) In turn, this means your store space isn’t dominated by your queue in the same way a Pret normally is – so you can create a nicer seating area, which in turn, may lead to retained demand during “lull” periods. 


A) Too small a waiting area often boxes customers together in a small space. 

B) This adds a layer of complexity versus the Pret queue, where it’s not needed. 

C) As with all the queues in this section, it works best when customers won’t be waiting very long for their food – 6 minutes is a good ballpark for when standers might begin to lose their patience.

D) You have to make a decision about orders, numbers or names…


Orders, Numbers, or Names

orders numbers or names


If you have a separate ordering and food receipt stations, you have a choice to make. How do you address the customers who have paid when you’re ready with their food? 

The advantage of orders is that it requires no further engineering. You make a coffee, you shout, “coffee!”, and then someone says, “that’s mine!” The disadvantage is that just calling out food leads to queue anxiety – defined in this series as when you’re not sure whether you’re next in line. And you take someone else’s cup. 

The advantage of names is that it’s personal. But therein lies the disadvantage – some people may pick a fight when you call out the wrong name, which is bound to happen several times a day. (Some sites claim Starbucks is doing this on purpose – we don’t believe them). It also requires that you remember somebody’s name, or write it down – which can prove tough.

The advantage of numbers is that it’s impersonal, and it’s precise. A number ordering ticket system can be set up relatively simply in most EPOS systems – and is a mainstay of systems designed for QSR, such as Nobly. Of course, “impersonal” can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your brand. Without printed tickets, people are also prone to forget numbers than their own name. 

Bingo queuing – when numbers are called out as the food is ready, and you don’t know who’s coming next!



McDonald's Queue


The flashier QSR venues amongst us, like McDonald’s, have kiosks where people can click and collect via a smart touchscreen. Greggs are trialing a service where customers can order and pick up their breakfast via their app. Argos famously require that people sit and await their number on the big screen. 

But off-the-shelf solutions are available in this vein, too – where small outlets use an iPad as the display unit. If you’re curious what’s on the market, ask a member of our team how this could work.


– Customers order more from a computer than a human. Taco Bell found that orders via their digital app were 20% larger than by person. 

– Customers are fully in control of their own journeys; that means they have the time to browse the selections they are given. There’s evidence that people prefer machine to human cashiers

– While a bespoke solution could get expensive, there are off-the-shelf software packages you can buy which just use iPads as the customer display unit. That means that, in the long term, this could easily work out cheaper than a cashier. It’s possible that a customer facing display is included in your EPOS software package; or it’s possible that you’d have to buy one separately for around the £20 per month mark. 

– Multiple kiosks can fit into a much smaller space than multiple tills – improving the overall throughput with which you take orders.


– You’ll probably still need a human around, somewhere. Some customers disagree with technology (even with a smooth UX!) and more will have specific dietary and allergen stipulations they may need to check with you. 

– As with all the queues in this section, it works best when customers won’t be waiting very long for their food – 6 minutes is a good ballpark for when standers might begin to lose their patience. (You could alternatively choose to use self-order kiosks per table) for a super-modern restaurant. 

– It could change the “feel” of your cafe in a way you dislike. It’s easy to look at self-branding options within the customer facing display of your software; but some cafe owners prefer things to be personal. 

V) Other Layouts

The next chapter, casual hospitality, will tackle queues which include:

– The canteen style queue, such as subway 

– The open car park, in which you’re trying to find a table before you address the server

– The pub style queue, which is pandemonium 

And restaurant queueing will examine some of the ways you can queue for tables as things get complexer and waiting times elongate.



Comments (0)

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *