He Said, She Said: Restaurant Wait Times

ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry and working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. Two of our Instructors, Julia Heyer and Vin McCann, have been looking at topics and trends in the industry, shedding light on some complicated issues and sharing their in-depth expertise. This week, Julia and Vin dive head-first into how to deal with restaurant capacity, reservations, lists and wait times.

Julia Heyer

I went to a hopping place a few weeks ago. Seats at the bar were coveted. The wait time for a table was quoted at an hour and a half. And yet there were four-plus empty dining tables. And not just for five to 10 minutes. Fifteen empty seats on a Friday night at 7:15 pm. What was going on here? After listening to my friend’s growling stomachs and rising discontent, I moseyed over to the host stand. Just to, you know, sweetly check in on the wait time — still over an hour. I cracked a joke to the hostess about how the empty tables were magically pulling me towards them. There was a smile (it was very faint) and a perfunctory, “Sorry. Those tables are reserved”. Thought it was a fluke? Well it happened again this past Friday. Hungry guests packed into the bar, lots of empty tables with guests begrudgingly eyeing the open seats. Why can’t we sit down and give you our hard-earned $32 for a grilled branzino already?

It isn’t a problem that the restaurant takes reservations or that they wish to honor them. It’s a nice service and a good guarantee of business. What is a problem for both guests and the business is that the management apparently doesn’t have the foggiest idea as to how to manage their reservations and capacity. HINT: taking reservations for over 20 seats at 8pm when you clearly have demand for it in your restaurant at 7pm is NOT the way to go. Open seats, many of them for over an hour, at your peak business time are neither good service or sound business practice. It’s a bad decision.

Vin McCann

Julia, surprisingly I couldn’t agree more. The craft of managing a restaurant desk is fast going by the board. Whatever title we pin on that position (Maitre d’, Floor Manager, Dining Room Manager, Head Host, etc.), the requisite skills do not automatically follow. This person needs to be able to know the average turn time, what the status of each table is, when the parties arrived, the busiest points, and what the flexibilities in the floor plan are, as well as read the new guests as they arrive, take a few risks to accommodate some additional guests, and set reservation policies based on the historical ratio between reservations and walk-in.

I could go on, but what’s the point? So few bother to engage to this extent anymore. It’s easier for the operator to pay less for the position and rely on “policies”. What you call “capacity management” can put a couple of thousand dollars of sales a week in a restaurant’s till, but it takes some smarts, skill, and effort — qualities that seem to be in short supply at a great many restaurants’ front desk.

Julia Responds

Aren’t businesses supposed to be more sophisticated in our day and age? Are we really struggling with empty seats at 7:30 pm on a Friday because no one fills them even when customers are waiting to sit? The only art they displayed here is showing how to kill two birds with one stone — only in this case they managed to get two negative results from not setting up their reservation book well: empty tables (a.k.a. lost revenue) AND slightly unhappy guests.

Vin’s Final Thoughts

There is an old Sinatra tune that goes “When I’m not near the one I love, I love the one I’m near.” Given the general no-show rate for reservations, restaurants could go to school on the song. Why create a reservation policy that puts you in the position of having to choose between the guest in front of you and the guest you are hoping will arrive? Rejection and disappointment are inevitable for one party or the other — not great for business in either case. Artful diligence could avoid it all. Guess it’s just easier to make a policy. From my perspective, like Sinatra, with a little bit of work, you can love both.

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