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A kitchen display system, or KDS, is a digital screen system that manages customer orders for restaurants. It replaces paper order tickets and helps restaurants organize, prioritize, change and track orders. KDS technology has become more popular as it has become cheaper and easier to implement.
» MORE: Best restaurant POS systems
Before kitchen display systems
The legacy method of managing orders looks like this:
An order is placed. When a server inputs a customer order into a point-of-sale system, a small receipt-like ticket prints in the kitchen.
Tickets are manually organized. As these tickets appear, kitchen staff might lay them on a counter or secure them to a ticket rail above the grill or prep area.
Tickets are manually prioritized. Ideally, tickets are arranged so that the various orders from a single table are completed at once and delivered on time.
Staff can make notifications and changes manually. If order updates or modifications come in later, a new ticket might be printed to replace the old one, or a manager, cook or chef might write updated information on the ticket. A white board on the wall might display handwritten information like dishes or ingredients that have run out.
All of this is replaced with a KDS.
What a KDS does
A KDS typically is a flat-screen monitor, often mounted to a wall at eye level in the kitchen. Some kitchens have monitors at multiple locations, though one is sufficient for many. The monitors usually have touch screens, though some have a separate input device, like a keypad. You might encounter a KDS that runs on a standard tablet, like an iPad, while others are designed and built specifically for KDS use.
Generally speaking, a modern KDS has many of the following capabilities:
An order is placed. When a server inputs a customer order, it is routed to a digital display in the kitchen.
It’s routed to the right place automatically. If the restaurant has multiple KDS screens, the various components of an order can be preprogrammed to be routed to the appropriate place (the grill or the fry station, for example).
Staff can access details easily. Recipe details and photos can appear on the screen.
Dishes are automatically prioritized. Based on expected prep time, the system can properly pace the start time for each dish on an order. If the prompts are followed, the various dishes on an order will be completed at the right time.
Staff can make notifications or changes automatically. Staff receive an alert if an order changes or is behind schedule. Staff, and in some cases customers, receive an alert when food is ready.
You can analyze the data. The system collects and compiles data, like average cook time, into reports.
Benefits of using a KDS
The benefits of a KDS boil down to two things: Replacing and improving paper-based processes, and providing new capabilities.
Everything’s digital. No more lost, torn or burned tickets.
It centralizes information. Having a single source of information everyone can access can help avoid miscommunications, bypassing the need to rely on verbal or handwritten updates to orders.
Difficult tasks are automated. Complex tasks such as dish sequencing and timing tickets — things once done by hand — are now completed automatically, instantly and accurately.
It can make analysis easier. A KDS can also use the data generated over time and create reports. These reports can help your business become more efficient. For example, you’ll be able to see if it’s taking longer than expected to get certain dishes out of the kitchen, or if certain days or times see drops in performance.
Where a KDS works best
Kitchen display systems aren’t niche products that benefit only specific types of restaurants, according to Ron Blum, an associate professor at Johnson & Wales University who specializes in hospitality technology. “They are here to stay,” he says. “You’re going to see more and more acceptance of them.”
Blum says that using a KDS is a good idea for most restaurants. Even places with small kitchens, like a coffee shop or cafe with a small menu, could benefit. The savings in paper alone can often lead to serious savings. In other words, the question to ask isn’t whether a KDS would benefit your restaurant: Assume it would, and start considering how you could implement one most effectively.
In addition to bringing more efficiency to a kitchen, one indirect benefit of using a KDS is the ability to store knowledge that might currently exist with a few longer-tenured employees and share it with everyone. In an environment where turnover is common, retaining important details can help shorten the time needed to train new employees.
Blum said the downsides — the upfront investment and initial learning curve when implementing any new system — are only temporary.
For anyone considering getting started with a KDS, Blum suggested starting small with the goal of expanding. Set up a KDS wherever the central hub happens to be in your kitchen — likely where the printer is now — before adding additional locations.
When a KDS might not make sense
Using a KDS can benefit many types of restaurants. But it might not make as much sense if:
Your KDS options are limited by your point-of-sale system. If you don’t like the choices available, you might prefer to stick with paper (or look at other POS systems).
Your kitchen doesn’t have a good place to mount a KDS. In addition, the hardware might not suit your needs; some KDS setups operate exclusively on a touch screen, which could be difficult to use in some environments.
If you have a small space and a limited menu, like some food trucks, a KDS might not be worth it.
How to get started with a KDS
If you use a newer, cloud-based POS, like Toast, your choice of KDS might be limited to a proprietary option offered by that company. Questions to ask include:
Is the hardware included, or do you supply your own?
Does the company supply or recommend mounting hardware?
What are the costs? Many of these systems use subscription pricing, but you’ll want to confirm.
What would starting small look like, and in what ways could you grow into the system?
What types of reports can the KDS generate?
If you use an older POS system, you’ll want to check with the manufacturer to see what options are available.
Top KDS providers and how much they cost
Price: $10 per screen per month plus cost of hardware.
Hardware used: iPad.
Overview: Lightspeed’s well-priced KDS aids kitchen staff in coordinating delivery, pickup and in-house dining with helpful icons. Other kitchen-friendly details — like the ability to quickly scan wait times with color coding on each digital ticket or a breakdown of which dishes see the biggest delay — make this a good option.
$20 per month per display plus cost of hardware if using Square’s free Restaurant software.
Free to use if you subscribe to Restaurant Plus ($60 per month) plus cost of hardware.
Hardware used: iPad.
Overview: This KDS doesn’t cost anything extra if you use Square Plus, which is the paid version of its restaurant POS system. If you use Square’s free POS, it will cost you $20 per screen per month, which is still a good deal. The feature list of this KDS isn’t as deep as some others, but counter service or pickup- and delivery-oriented restaurants may find that the combination of pricing and Square’s easy user interface make this a good option.
Price: $25 per month plus one-time cost of $499 for hardware.
Hardware used: Custom device designed by Toast.
Overview: It costs more than the others, but Toast offers a few features the others don’t. The company says its custom-built device is built for abuse, withstanding higher temperatures than iPads, for example. It also supports multiple languages and lets the kitchen ping servers (or guests) via text or an app when their food is up.