Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why won't they seat me when there are empty tables?

It's a familiar scenario. You arrive at a restaurant where there are people waiting to be seated, but when you look in the dining room, you see there are quite a few empty tables. What gives?

It boils down to restaurant dynamics and a number of factors. 

It may not seem like it to the general public, but busy restaurants have a plan. That plan takes into account several things, including table sizes, servers, table turn times, pacing, and reservations. 

Table sizes. You see a table that seats four. The restaurant sees a table that they have labeled to seat 3-5 people and one that, if necessary, can be pushed together with the one beside it to seat a larger party. So while your party of two sees it as a place where you can sit, the restaurant might have other plans for that table.

Servers have been predetermined to be able to handle a certain number of tables. If a server has too many tables, your quality of service goes down. They could be rushed and flustered or they could be overwhelmed and you are left angry and impatient wondering why your table is being ignored. If there are not enough servers on duty, then sections of the restaurant could be left empty until more servers are added. 

Table turn times are the amount of time that is estimated for a party to sit at a table, finish a meal, vacate and leave the table ready for the next table. Every table size is calculated differently. During a weekday lunch tables have faster turn times because it's assumed everyone needs to keep to an hour lunch. But a 2-top table might only take 40 minutes to turn while a 6-top will take 60 minutes. At dinner that 2-top might take 75 minutes while the 6-top takes 90. It all becomes sort of a math equation of calculating what tables will be available when.

Pacing is a time calculation that also ensures that you aren't stuck impatiently waiting for your server or your food to show up at your table. Pacing is how many people or tables can be handled by the servers and the kitchen during an interval, usually 15 minute intervals. An easy example is when a restaurant first opens its doors, maybe for Sunday brunch. They have 20 tables, but there are already 30 parties out waiting. If they sat all 20 tables immediately and then the kitchen got slammed with 50 orders all at once, the quality of food would suffer, you'd be waiting for your food, and the rest of the morning's pace would be messed up. Instead that restaurant might seat a third of the tables, wait 10-15 minutes to seat another 1/3, and then finally seat the last third. This spreads the tables out for the servers and the kitchen in such a way that is manageable.

Then there are the reservations. If a restaurant takes reservations they have to keep tables open for them. They also have to factor them into their calculations of turn times and pacing. Yes, reservations have priority over waitlist because they took the time to plan ahead. Thus, they are rewarded with a table being ready.

As you can see, there are a lot of components to the restaurant's plan of operation. The key to remember is that the plan is meant for the customer — to provide the best experience for you after you take a seat at the table with proper attention, service, and food. Messing with the plan could result in a bad dining experience for you where you leave angry and/or disappointed. Allow restaurants to keep to their plan. 

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