The restaurant as assembly line
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It was a cool, windy day at Times Square, New York, and the lunch rush hour was under way. There were at least 30 people ahead of me in the winding queue that threatened to spill out of a cramped, minibus-sized restaurant called Roast Kitchen.
With the endless permutations and combinations of meats, rice, farro, vegetables and flavourings it offered customers, I prepared for a long wait. My own order was complicated: baby spinach and organic farro, roasted onion, tomato, eggplant and peppers stir-fried with a Moroccan sauce, topped with grilled salmon, although I did—guiltily—consider the black Angus sirloin.
The lunch bowl was in my hands within 7 minutes.
To say I was amazed is putting it mildly. I live in a city where darshinis serving quick, hot offerings of south Indian fast food—idli, dosa, vada—proliferate, but the options are limited, there is chaos behind the counter and orders are often forgotten.
Roast Kitchen has taken the fast-food concept to another level, applying the design of the assembly line to its gourmet food. The assembly line consists of the order taker, who helps you with the options and sticks your order on a post-it at the start of the line. On the other side of the chest-high glass partition, you can see the assembly line crank it up. The first person assembles the vegetables in a bowl, the second stir-fries with minimal or no oil, the third adds sauce (six options) and rice, quinoa or farro and tosses, the fourth warms pre-grilled salmon, the fifth adds dressing (nine options) and tosses again, the sixth packs and the seventh hands over the bill. Each person works in concert with a backup, so there is no pause.
This triumph of design, the restaurant as assembly line, should not be surprising because it has emerged from a people who gave the world the assembly line, pioneered by Henry Ford in 1913 as he jump-started the then nascent automobile industry by churning out millions of Model Ts and transforming forever the process of making things quicker, better and more profitably.
Ford’s legacy is at once evident in the restaurant business, but since the redesign of the restaurant business as an assembly line, made evident by cheap fast food at McDonald’s, the model has moved upmarket. In Roast Kitchen, I lined up with bankers in fitted suits, elegant women in pumps—not the kind of people you would find in the Red Lobster or Olive Garden, middle-class chain restaurants. Roast Kitchen is a chain, but it has only four branches.
Our favourite for a quick, one-pot, nutritious meal during our month-long American journey was the more common Chipotle Mexican Grill, particularly attractive to Indians because of its spice-filled Mexican food. “I love it, Appa,” said my six-year-old, gushing over the pulled pork wrapped in a wheat burrito with lashings of avocado, tomato and onion. It was hard to stop her from rushing into Chipotles thereafter because they were everywhere, serving up the same burrito in New York as they did across the continent in San Francisco.
For a country as large and diverse as the US, there is a great sameness evident to the casual tourist. The Big Mac, the 99-cent taco (around Rs65) and greasy Chinese takeout are the same from sea to shining sea. Hotel shower levers are the same everywhere, traversing through cold before hot, with no water-intensity control; the Wi-Fi networks of hotel chains and amusement parks automatically reconnect you at other company properties nationwide; and people stay to the right when walking on sidewalks, as they call footpaths.
Life in the US is about seeking uniformity and enforcing order. It allows the world’s largest market to offer economies of scale, operating efficiency and customer comfort, which we gratefully experienced at mealtimes.
It also makes life somewhat boring, safe and predictable. When I finished my master’s degree in 1994, I quickly dispensed with the idea of being an entry-level reporter in the US. After spending the four preceding years in India reporting on “rowdies” called Oil Kumar and Murgi Fiyaz and crawling through sandalwood forests with self-styled police “commandos” in pursuit of a—then—little-known elephant-killer and sandalwood smuggler called Veerappan, I could not bring passion to children’s water park inaugurations, analysing a “crime wave” that involved a record five murders in a year and describing the wonders of a super-fat hog at a country fair.
This is not to say there is a shortage of man-bites-dog stories in the land of the free. As I write this, the Orlando Sentinel reports that an alligator bit a 10-year-old girl, and a runaway zebra gambolled on to a highway and slammed into a car.
But the really big local news of the day is—yes—the inauguration of a children’s water park.
There is, of course, a lot to commend about uniformity and order. It is what made America great in the first place, and it is why—despite the dark era of Donald Trump—the country remains the world’s premier immigrant destination.
Blend that enforced uniformity with creativity, and you begin to understand why the US is so successful at designing new things and processes. It is why the assembly line has been successfully transported to the restaurant business.
In India, assembly lines only work with industrial kitchens, airline or wedding caterers. The darshini way of handing high turnover is a triumph of the Indian order-in-chaos model, but it is not suitable, as I said, for limited offerings, mostly pre-prepared. At our neighbourhood darshini, all hell breaks loose if there are more than 10 orders for dosas because there is only one griddle holding 10 dosas and one chef. There are as many staff in the darshini as in a Roast Kitchen—and both are as cramped—but at peak hour, the triumph of the American design is obvious. I did not count, but the darshinis clearly process fewer people.
The flow of ideas between India and the US is constant, but the restaurant assembly line is an idea we might want to borrow.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.