Keep the Tip — Advice to Restaurateurs


No doubt the restaurant climate in the city is changing as the economy spirals downward. While a few upscale restaurants (I’m talking about places that expect $50 or more per diner) still enjoy full capacity, many yawn half-empty, even on weekend evenings.

Here begins a new series on restaurant sustainability — how to be the restaurant that’s full rather than empty. To do this, restaurateurs must elimate those practices that put diners at a disadvantage and make them not want to return. The successful restaurant of the future will win over diners one by one, by creating an environment in which customers feel like pampered guests rather than shark’s prey.

To get the ball rolling, here are a couple of my pet peeves about expensive restaurants, practices that should be elimated, whether initiated by staff or official restaurant policy.

Part 1: Slotting and Herding

THE PROBLEM: We’ve all had the experience – you call to make a reservation for a week hence. A soothing voice on the other end inquires, “What time would you like?” Seven o’clock, you reply, falling for the bait. “I’m so sorry,” the voice coos, “but that time is fully committed.” It goes on: “But we have a 5:45.”

Now, 5:45 is going to be a stretch; only young children and the elderly dine at that hour by choice. Comes the designated time you and your date arrive promptly to find the restaurant empty, the black-clad staff standing around fidgeting. Well, you ruefully observe, at least I managed to get a reservation at this wildly popular spot. But the hour of 7 rolls around, then 8, and, donning your coat to leave, you note that the joint is still half empty — meaning that you could have been accommodated at the requested hour. Congratulations! You’ve been slotted – the practice of offering absurd reservation times in an attempt to wedge as many hypothetical seatings into an evening as possible. And it’s often done even when there’s no chance the restaurant will be packed.

THE SOLUTION: Go back to the old system. Allow customers to make reservations for the times they want. Maybe you won’t be able to wedge as many reservations onto the books, but the customers will be happier, spend more, and be prone to return. They’ll also be more prone to actually showing up.

THE PROBLEM: Abuses at the greeter’s podium abound. Another is something I call bar herding. You arrive on time for your reservation to find a room with plenty of unclaimed tables, attractively set with white napery, wine glasses gleaming. Yet, instead of seating you promptly, the hostess says something like, “I’m sorry, your table is not quite ready yet. Could you please wait a moment,” gesturing toward a pair of empty bar stools. This is a crass attempt to jump-start your liquor consumption, adding a couple of $10 cocktails, plus tax and tip, to the overall tab.

THE SOLUTION: When customers arrive, assume they want to be seated immediately, and don’t try to herd them to the bar. Once seated, if they feel like a cocktail, they’ll order one.

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