How many customers are too many in one seating?

Taste of Tulalip Table 2014

If you work in a restaurant then you are familiar with this question. There are two clear perspectives of thought regarding this subject: the Front of the House (FOH) perspective and the Back of the House (BOH) perspective. Speaking from the Back of the House, it seems that the Front of the House perspective often is to simply seat as many people as possible, regardless of the outcome. Got 100,000 seats open?…seat them all!! The kitchen’s perspective is to seat as many people as the kitchen (and Waitstaff for that matter) can execute in a timely, professional manner with a focus on quality food and successful service resulting in happy customers.

What often seems to happen, however, is that many guests will show up all at once, the restaurant will be seated all at once, the waitstaff scurry around and take all of their orders from all of their new tables, and then turn in all of their new orders and tables at the same time. This results in slamming the kitchen and giving them more plates than they can possibly produce in a timely fashion (we have 10 burners but suddenly are slammed with 25 sauté items!). The result is that customers will wait for their food, while the kitchen tries to dig itself out of the hole and waitstaff stand around asking, “What’s taking my food so long?” And when waitstaff go back to their tables and respond to customer comments about why it’s taking so long, the most frequent answer to the customer is that “the kitchen is behind”. Wrong! The Front of the House failed to manage the seating!

What often happens next is that the kitchen will hit high gear, food slams into the “window”, and now the waitstaff cannot pick-up food fast enough. The cooks yell, “take this food out! Get it out of the window!” Then the kitchen comes to a halt while they wait for the servers to deliver food. This is often followed by food coming back to the kitchen because it is overcooked or dry from sitting in the window too long.

Not a Kitchen Problem

From my perspective, none of this is a kitchen problem. The fact that the kitchen was buried is because the Front of the House failed to manage the guest seating. It is the responsibility of the FOH to manage the flow of guests, to speed up one table and slow down another, to drag a few “walk in” guests rather than seat everyone at once. If the kitchen where to put up 40 plates all at once for one waiter and then complain about taking so long to get the food out, that would be unjust. The same goes for the Front of the House when they slam the kitchen. It’s about planning and controlling the flow, not just putting butts in the seats.

The guest is going to have to wait, one way or the other. They will either have to wait to get a table, or they’ll have to wait to get their food. It is better to tell the customer (customers with no reservation) that it’s going to be 30 – 60 minutes before you can be seated rather than to seat them quickly and then have them wait a long time to get their food. It is a better guest perception to have to wait to get a table (unless they have a reservation of course) and then once they have arrived at their table to have a quality experience. Rather than to be quickly seated, and then sit and wait and wait and wait and wonder what is going on before they can get their meal. At the end of the day the proper seating of restaurant customers is defined by how many happy customers you had and how few “guest relations” issues you had to resolve due to timing.

Will you lose some covers that night because the guest isn’t going to wait 30 minutes for a table? Yes, some customers will leave and go dine somewhere else. But they will remember that and the next time they will plan ahead and make a reservation. On the other hand, if you seat that guest when the restaurant is already at capacity and they then have to sit and wait, wait, wait for their food…what will they remember? That the service was terrible, and they won’t be back. So, you got their money for one day…but lost that guest for the future. I’d say that’s a pretty poor business model. Proper service is more important than simply cramming “butts in the seats”.

Here is a great example of “seat everyone” -vs- “controlled seating”. Lets say you are open from 5:00 – 11:00 pm. On one Saturday you serve 384 guests with the vast majority of them being served between 6:30 – 9:00, slamming the restaurant. On the next Saturday you again serve 384 guests, but this time with a controlled seating of about 16 people every 15 minutes. You’ve done the same number of covers but the night went much smoother with better service from the FOH & BOH and the guests are happier. Yes, I know it may be hard to get either that first or last turn, but the point is to control the seating and force guests into slower time slots. If you go on an hour wait at prime time then don’t take reservations during prime time. Force reservations into the earlier or later slots. That way you’ll have more room for walk-ins during “the rush”.

I would like to propose two questions to two different groups of people. First question is for people who are in the industry FOH and BOH. What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it better to have the customer wait to be seated, or is it better to get them seated and make them wait for service and food? In which situation do customers leave happier? In which situation do you spend more time and money trying to recover the table?

Second question. When you go out to eat, would you rather sit at the bar or in the waiting area for 15 minutes before being seated? Or would you prefer to be quickly seated and then have to wait a prolonged period of time for your meal, wondering what is taking so long?

I understand that the perspective of the House is to capture as many customers as possible. Even if that means making them wait for their meal. At least they will end up paying a check and contributing funds to the House. I contend that a quality customer experience will cause that customer to return again and again. While a negative customer experience may cause the customer to never return…and of course tell all their friends. Therefore, slamming as many people into the restaurant as possible may not necessarily generate you more funds in the long run. If the House believes that filling the restaurant with as many customers as possible is the best way to capture revenue and promote their business, I suggest giving the matter more thought.

Every restaurant has disputes between the FOH and the BOH. These disputes revolve around the difference in perspective between them, as well as their different priorities, tensions and challenges. To properly assess and navigate through this minefield there are two guiding principles. Number one: what is best for the business. Number two: what is best for the customer. Pretty much any issue between the front of the house and back of the house can be resolved by applying these two principles. The highest priority is what is good for the business. But that is very closely followed by what is good for the guest. For instance, it is good for the guest to receive an extra pound of king crab for free. The guests would love that and the waitstaff’s tip would probably go up because of it. But that is bad for business, and therefore it is an improper decision. On the other side of the coin, is it good for the business to advertise a pound of king crab, but only present the customer with half a pound? That saves the business money, but it creates a very negative perspective in the eyes of the guests and will negatively impact the future revenue of the restaurant.

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty application of these two principles. You have a customer who is dissatisfied with their meal. Is it better to buy their meal, or simply apologize and hope that they’ll return again. In this situation it is better to lose money in the short term, i.e. offer them another entree option, a free dessert, buy them a drink, or pay for their entire meal, whatever seems appropriate to recover the guest. You may lose money on this one meal, but you will probably recover that guest so that they will come back again and hopefully with more people. It makes better business sense to lose money in the short run and gain future revenue. Are they sincere in their complaint, or are they someone who simply complains in order to get something for free? If you recognize a trend with certain customers who always come in and complain in order to get something for free, in that situation you are better to cut them off and lose their business because they’re costing you money every time they come in. They are freeloaders and not worth your time or the money you spend on them.

Habitual complainers. Every restaurant will have habitual complainers. You should keep a list of these people. Keep track of their phone numbers, the names they use (some use various names), credit card numbers, etc. These people are parasites upon your business. You need to evaluate whether or not they are worth compensating every time they come in to dine. If they contribute in some way to your business, then it may be worth keeping them. But if they contribute nothing, but only come in to get some type of free discount every time, then you need to cut them off and ask them to take their business elsewhere. You can do this in a polite fashion by saying something like. “I’m sorry, it appears that we can not meet your needs. We would appreciate it if you would take your business elsewhere.”

Are you a Chef, cook, server, or FOH Manager? What are your thoughts on the topic?


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sergio hernandez

who is the author of this article

Front Mgr.

Hi…I’d like to discuss the customer flow more in detail. We do seat as soon as they walk in causing the kitchen to get slammed. Also, the customer has a strong preference to to seat in certain seats causing servers to not get even quantity of tables aka tips…this also causes problems. Also, we have a banquet room. In two weeks we are serving 105 off menus….how do we control the flow of that along with our regular busy volume. As of right now, I was going to assign 3 servers and to just tell send them. I already know… Read more »

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