Restaurants want to seat as many customers as possible so here’s how to increase table turnover while delivering the service diners expect. Angela Tufvesson reports
In an ideal culinary world, customers would arrive at a restaurant at the pre-booked time, order three courses and a pricey bottle of wine, and leave within the period allocated for their meal. The table would be reset for the next booking, allowing the restaurant to maximise its revenue per seat. But they don’t call it hospitality for nothing, and customers are unlikely to return to a restaurant that tut-tuts late arrivals or rushes diners lingering over coffee. So how can venues maximise table turnover without putting customers offside?
Set time limits
For busy restaurants, allocating two-hour sitting times at dinner is one of the easiest strategies to maximise table turnover. There’s usually no need to put a limit on lunchtime dining as most customers have their own restrictions (read: getting back to the office).
“Between 5.30pm and 9pm is when you would utilise the two-hour timeframes as that’s when everyone wants to eat,” says Sunny Matharu from hospitality consultancy, The Eatery. “In two hours, you’d expect someone to go through a three-course meal, or if it’s share plates you’d expect the waiters could take people on a journey in those two hours with enough time to reset the table for the next sitting.”
Online booking sites such as OpenTable make it easy to advise customers of two-hour sitting times. For bookings made directly with the restaurant, it’s best to be up-front with customers, says hospitality coach Vanessa Pollock.
“If someone is making a reservation and you know there’s going to be a time limit on it, you need to let them know,” she says. “It’s not okay once a table turns up for a reservation to then let them know there’s a time limit on that table. If someone is a walk-in, it’s okay to say that you need the table back by 8.15pm for another group.”
Of course, two hours isn’t always enough time for a birthday celebration or big group catch-up, and not everyone wants to dine knowing they have to be out at a certain time. The solution? Late bookings, says Matharu. “If someone wants a bit longer, you can always suggest they book a bit later—usually 8pm or later—and they can be there for the rest of the night if they choose to.”
Devise an action plan
Whether a restaurant has sitting times or not, ensuring the kitchen is ready for the first customers is key to making sure it runs efficiently, says experienced restaurateur Clyde Bevan, owner of Friends Restaurant in Perth. “The kitchen needs to be awake at 6pm,” he says. “Sometimes kitchens take half an hour or 45 minutes to warm up. You’ve got to have the kitchen running at 6pm if you’re going to turn over tables early because if some people come late, it makes it hard to play catch-up with those people and push their food through if you weren’t ready for them in the first place.”
“Often we get in the habit of upselling when sometimes you’re better off to not get that coffee or dessert but get the next group in for three courses and two bottles of wine.”—Vanessa Pollock, hospitality coach
On the floor, Pollock says teaching staff different service strategies for ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ periods helps to maximise revenue per seat.
“During a hot period, your staff recognise tables are in demand and it’s busy, so they adjust their service accordingly,” she says. “All those little sales psychology tips that they might implement during a cold period where tables are not in high demand, like putting a dessert menu down, aren’t needed in a hot period. Often we get in the habit of upselling when sometimes you’re better off to not get that coffee or dessert but get the next group in for three courses and two bottles of wine.”
And, of course, communication between staff helps to keep the night running smoothly when customers stay longer than expected. “If someone is taking a bit longer, the communication needs to happen earlier as it gives you the time to juggle the second or third sitting onto another table,” says Matharu.
Have a back-up strategy
If customers have finished eating, is it impolite to ask if they’d like the bill? No, say all three experts. “If they’ve finished their meal and you make it very clear, it’s fine—this happens a lot in Europe and cities like New York,” says Bevan.
For groups who look keen to kick on after dinner, suggesting a move to the bar or lounge area can achieve the twin aims of keeping existing diners happy and bringing in new diners.
“Being able to move guests to a bar or lounge area can add something to their experience as well as serve the purpose of moving them off that table so the next guests can come in,” says Pollock. She also suggests giving staff agency to sweeten the deal with complimentary drinks.
Ultimately, Matharu says that even though restaurant staff may be working to turn over tables, customers should feel their time in the restaurant is adequate—and be unaware of what’s going on behind the scenes.
“You always want to ensure that the customer doesn’t feel rushed—that’s the bottom line,” he explains. “We juggle tables and we play a game of Tetris every night to make sure people feel like they’ve had enough time in the restaurant.”