Your hosts did it. You have a 12-top arriving in 10 minutes, and it looks like things are going to time out perfectly. You have 3 tables to push together: One is open, one is getting bussed right now, and the last one between the two is just receiving their bill. You can just flip that last table once they head out in five minutes and push everything together, right on time.
But of course it rarely works out that well in the restaurant industry. The final table sits and continues their conversation, not even glancing at the bill. The first members of the 12-top have just arrived, just a bit early. You greet them, hand them a pager and let them know their table should be ready shortly.
They head to the bar and the rest of their group joins them over the next five minutes. You’re now five minutes past the reservation time, but the group is in the bar conversing and hasn’t seemed to notice that they are over their time.
Meanwhile, your squatter table has remained now pushing on 15 minutes since they received a bill and proceeded to ignore it completely. What do you do?
Should You Do Anything?
At this point, as a host, you start to panic a bit. These types of guests can upend and wreck havoc on your entire waiting list. Before going overboard, take a look at your dining room and determine your other options. Is there somewhere else you can put the larger group? Is the squatter table worth potentially pissing off just to get this new group in? You may justify your behavior by saying the guests are rude for sitting there, so you are okay being rude asking them to leave. While this may have some validation, it’s likely not a great idea to anger a group of guests that have thus far had a great evening at your restaurant. Additionally, most times guests do not realize they are over-staying their welcome. By justifying that you can be rude to them you are implying that they are doing it maliciously, which is extremely rare.
Further, before addressing the table with this following list of mostly passive aggressive tactics, make sure that you cannot work out any other options first, and know that you may anger the guests and cause them never to return. Perceptions can vary and can be received with varying degrees of offense from none at all to highly offended. If you choose to try to get a squatter moving, tread lightly. Once, you have decided to proceed, here are some tactics you can use. Note that you won’t always use these tactics in full or even in this order. Each situation is unique and can require a bit of finesse.
Prebus, Prebus, Prebus
Remove all extra and dirty plates, silverware, glasses and napkins. This is actually considered beneficial to most guests, as they are not sitting surrounded by waste. However, when a guest is left with just their near empty glass and the bill, they bill is much more noticeable and more likely to get paid. Also, returning to the table to clear items interrupts the conversation and can refocus guests towards finishing up.
The Check Follow-Up
The server can return to the table and grab the check presenter asking, “Is this ready to go?” Or, “Did you need change back?” Following with, “Oh sorry, not a problem, I just don’t want you waiting on me.” This does a couple of things; First it brings attention to the check once again and lightly encourages them to move on. Second, when this is paired with the terms ‘go’ and ‘waiting’. You are subconsciously letting them know you are ‘waiting’ for them to ‘go’.
If that doesn’t work, you can incorporate the manager visit. This is not a confrontation visit, and is in fact the opposite. It’s a check-up that acts as another interruption. The manager will make some rounds at a few tables in the dining room and then head to the squatting table. As the manager, start by asking “How was everything tonight?” The key word there: ‘was’. “Did (server’s name) take care of you well tonight?” “Great, he/she has been working hard and is prepping for a large table we have coming in shortly from the bar, so I wanted to make sure your service was great tonight. I’m glad to hear things went well.” “Was this the plan for tonight, or are you going out to do something special after this?” Respond in kind, and thank them for coming in, adding, “we hope to see you back some time soon.”
This hits several subconscious elements. It uses the past tense frequently, suggesting that the meal is now over. It gets them thinking about where to go next. It helps them think about the server who is looking to prepare for a large table coming up encouraging the patrons to pay their bill as to not have to wait on the large table later. Last, if they can put all of it together, they may realize that the large table is waiting for their table even though you didn’t directly say that.
Set and Arrange Neighboring Tables
If that still didn’t work, start to rearrange nearby tables and prepare them for the large table coming in. This should be a clear and less subtle hint that the large table includes the table they are sitting at. This should be a big hint to the squatting guests. Then again, they should have figured it out before all of that.
Through this process as well, make sure you are keeping the waiting 12-top informed of the situation so they are not left in the dark. Let them know that you are waiting on one final table and that it should hopefully be about 10 minutes or less, and let them know you are preparing a backup table as well just in case it ends up being longer than expected.
Bribe and Transfer
When all of the above fail, you may have to resort to basic bribery. Go to the squatting table and let them know of the situation and offer them a free round of drinks if they are able to move to a different table in the dining room or bar. “I’m sorry to ask you this, but we have a large group waiting in the bar that’s is significantly over their wait time. We are trying to seat everyone together, and it would really help us out if you would be willing to move to this table or one in our bar area. For helping us out, I would gladly buy a round of drinks for you.”
At this point, many guests will voluntarily go, saying there is no need for a round of drinks and have no problem with you asking them, having not realized they were holding up a table. Remember, in the end, most people are good people and are considerate to your situation and the other guests. If they turn down the drinks, offer a gift certificate for their next visit for helping you out.
Alternatively, instead of bribing the squatting party you can bribe the waiting party. “Hey, I know your table is taking longer than expected. We are just waiting on one final table that has their bill, so I wouldn’t expect it to be too much longer. However, I know you are all probably pretty hungry, so we’ve prepared a couple of different appetizers on the house for all of you to munch on here in the bar while you wait. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer.”
Wait It Out
After weighing all if the options above and using the ones that you choose, you are left with one last option. Short of rudely telling them to leave and losing a customer for life, your last option is to simply wait it out. Rework the dining room. Map it out and get your following tables into different seats. I have had a 10-top table sit around 4:15 and not leave until 10, with no drinks or food after 8, not even glasses on the table, just sitting and talking, destroying our Friday night dinner rush plans.
It throws a wrench into your plans, and has you create some interesting table layouts in your dining room as you try to squeeze in new formations. Most of the time, with some creativity a squatter shouldn’t set you back too far. See the Should Restaurants Take Reservations article for some added discussion on whether or not you should even take reservations for large groups anyway. If you don’t have many large groups, small reservations can typically be remapped to a different table with only minor setbacks.
Squatters can be one of the most aggravating parts of the restaurant business and can turn a great night into a terrible one. With some good strategy, subconscious hinting, and sometimes a little bit of bribery you can usually fix it or pivot quickly. Just go in with tact and creativity and you’ll end up with a solution that works well for you guests and the restaurant.