The waiting game

It is one of the finest arts in hospitality – managing customer expectations around how long they are going to wait until they are seated and served. Having people waiting to dine with you is a great position to be in. Managed well, these potential customers can guarantee an income stream. But badly handled interactions can cause friction, bad customer experience and, at worst, would be customers fleeing into the arms of your opposition.

There is one pub in Bristol, England, that is fully booked for the next four years. After winning the Observer Food Monthly award in 2019 for best pub meal, this historic 20-seater took forward bookings into 2023. Its offer is sensational – a massive roast beef lunch topped with a great Yorkshire pudding for just £17 ($30AU)! Meanwhile, at the top end of the dining scene the world’s best restaurants are often booked many months in advance. Some, like Melbourne’s Vue de monde, have reservation systems that manage communications with customers. They remind diners of their upcoming booking and sometimes update them about the menu or inform them of events nearby, such as roadworks, that might affect access or parking. With most restaurants taking a deposit for bookings, a ‘no show’ leaves both parties out of pocket. So, when months can pass between the time of booking and when the meal will be served, reminders and communication have become even more essential.

Post-COVID has thrown up a novel scenario. While there is increased demand from customers hungry for a night out, there are fewer restaurant tables on any given night, with many restaurants restricting opening hours due to staff shortages. Add to this the Russian roulette of COVID infection in the community which sees a table of two cancel with just hours’ notice or a table of four become just two. Having a waitlist can fill these sudden no shows. The old school method is to have a physical list with a list of names, pax numbers and phone numbers. The clever operators ring around the waitlist and offer the tables to those who answer the phone, sealing the deal there and then. 

Then there is the waitlist for quick service restaurants (QSR), think speedy steakhouses, upmarket burger joints and fast modern-Asian diners. The diner sitting time is under an hour and there is a constant turnaround of customers. Instead of waiting at the door, or sitting at the bar, diners tap onto apps like OpenTable and Waitlist Me. They join the waiting list and can see how far away their table is in real time. Staff update the bookings on the in-house system and the app relays the info to customers. It still relies on human input from floor staff who need to judge how far away a table is from finishing. Some apps have the ability to take in customer information, including dining habits, such as they prefer dining on a Wednesday night for example, and notify them of possible tables at their favourite or similar restaurants. These apps are being used in US restaurants such as LongHorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden. By carefully and accurately managing wait times and informing the customer in real time, these apps lock customers into dining with that restaurant and stop them heading to the opposition.

Some restaurants have a bar or waiting area for guests biding time until a table becomes ready. It needs to be comfortable, have good music and good staff interaction. It could be a chance to check on dietaries, offer light snacks and drinks. This is the place to let customers know how far away their table is. A good restaurant can make the waiting game as enjoyable as the main game.

Managing the wait is also part of getting better customer flow – a big issue for busy restaurants. Incomplete parties, for example, will slow down the whole restaurant as they won’t place an order until the last guest arrives. Holding incomplete parties at the bar, if there is one, has been a trick in the past. Another way of transforming a dead table of an incomplete party into one that is paying its way is to encourage the pax to order from the cocktail list while their straggler heads to the restaurant. At the end of the meal make sure the bill is ready when asked for and that there is a pay at the table system. One of the biggest customer bugbears is waiting for a bill – once the meal is done many start thinking how much their babysitter is costing them. Managing the way customers wait in the dining game is all about communication and managing expectation – keep the info coming

As seen in Winter 2022

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