Does taking reservations at your restaurant make you more money or less money? Does it make your guests happier or angrier? Does it make things easier or more difficult for your staff? Today, we are going to explore whether or not you should take reservations at your restaurant.
The popularity of your restaurant can play a huge role on whether or not you should take reservations. If you are still a growing restaurant and you nearly always have open tables, then by all means, take reservations.
However, if you are a very popular restaurant especially at certain times you can go in one of three directions. One, switch to
only reservations if you are a more formal restaurant or have the customer demographic to sustain this. Two, eliminate all reservations and switch to walk-ins only with a wait list. Three, try a hybrid, taking reservations and plugging the holes with walk-ins.
Option three, hybrid reservations, typically works the worst, and here is why. Too often you will have reservations that sit too long, show up late, or don’t have the number of people you expected. This means that you will be waiting for tables to flip, holding tables too long, or having to rearrange your dining room to accommodate increased or decreased party size. This wreaks havoc on your waitlist and walk-in guests. It’s very difficult trying to quote wait times with this many unknown variables. Accordingly, you’ll frequently have angry guests who are way over their wait or reservation time, or you’ll over compensate and sit with a bunch of open tables that are waiting for reservations 30 minutes from now.
You can switch to a reservation only policy if you are frequently on an extended wait every weekend. Using this method, you can accurately time reservations to ensure quick and attentive service. The problem with this method is that it turns away guests that would have otherwise spent money at your restaurant. Further, this type of policy typically doesn’t work well with fast-casual types of restaurants or less formal concepts. If you can’t describe your dining room as ‘romantic’ there is a decent chance a reservation only policy isn’t going to be agreeable to the majority of guests.
Additionally, reservation only tends to lower your transient guest count. You don’t get as many traveling business people or walk-bys as these people didn’t know they needed reservations. If your customer base is primarily regulars and return customers, this shouldn’t be as much of an issue.
If you have the right concept, going reservation only can be an effective method for managing restaurant flows. Your guests don’t have to worry about their table being ready and can relax and enjoy their evening more. Many will still show up early to have a drink in the bar, and you can manage flow much more effectively. Those that are walk-ins can make reservations for the future once they understand that it is the only way they can eat at your restaurant. If you already had the volume, it should maintain itself and can be viewed as a good thing that you switched to reservations only. Your guests never have to wait, they can get in, out, and on with their evening.
This can be scary when you initially implement it. You are literally denying a guaranteed guest a table at a specific time. This can be hard to swallow. There is a way to counteract this with Call-Ahead Seating which we will discuss shortly.
While only taking walk-ins may initially seem unfriendly towards guests, it can actually help make sure they get seated faster. Instead of holding empty tables up to an hour to ensure that they are ready for a reservation, all tables can get sat as soon as they are open. This helps all walk-in customers get seated more quickly.
This process also makes things much easier for your hosts. Who’s more important a table that arrived on-time for a scheduled reservation or a walk-in that is already 15 minutes over their quote time? With a walk-in only system, you never have to face this dilemma.
We can see that walk-in only is easier for hosts (than a hybrid) and better for walk-in guests, but what about those that wanted a reservation? They are now waiting an hour. That’s not beneficial to them. Here is where call-ahead seating comes in.
Instead of the guest picking their time, they can call ahead to be put on the waiting list at the current wait time. For instance, if it’s 5:00pm and you are on a 10 minute wait, a guest cannot call to be put on the list for 7:00pm. That would be a reservation. Instead, they are treated as if they had walked in the door and we’re quoted a time. In the instance above, they could be put on the list for 5:10pm or they could call back later. If this situation happened, you could encourage them to call back at around 6:00 when the wait is expected to be about an hour. This way a party can organize their night and wait while they are driving over, but your hosts are able to seat every open table as it opens.
Some other factors to consider when making the choice to go with reservations or not include your restaurant capacity, production capacity, large groups, and time of day. We’ll explore each of those briefly next.
If you have a very small restaurant physically, you may need to go to reservation only because you’d full the wait list full until close by 5:30.
Additionally, if you do not have a large bar or waiting area to accommodate those on your waiting list, you may not be able to go with walk-in only.
It doesn’t always come down to seats though. Sometimes, limited kitchen space may be your determining factor. If you have a small kitchen that cannot accommodate a large number of tickets at one time, you may want to switch to a reservation system just to pace guests better. This can be achieved via a waitlist with good quote times as well, it’s just more difficult.
What happens when you have a group of 8 or more. This size group will typically take up 2 tables or more. It can be difficult to accommodate groups of this size without a reservation, and even then it can be difficult. Many restaurants will take reservations just for large groups and use walk-ins or call-ahead seating for everyone else. This can work, but I would be cautious.
Typically, after a short period, groups of 4 will begin making a reservation for 8 to secure a reservation and then on the night of say half their group didn’t show up. This means you lost a table while you waited for the group to show, and if they didn’t tell you until after they sat down, you lose the table for the length of their dinner as well. Not good.
One additional thing to consider. While it’s difficult to turn away a large group or make them wait, they typically will make you less money in the long run. This may seem counter-intuitive because their total bill is so high. However, larger tables typically sit empty as you wait for the whole group to arrive, large groups typically sit longer, and large tables typically slow down your service, kitchen, and check closeouts. You could likely break up the two tables of an 8-top and seat them each at least twice in the time it takes you to serve the 8-top. Even if each of these tables was just 2 people you would break even and that’s assuming you didn’t have to hold an empty table for a while with the large top.
With all that said, it’s nice when lots of people want to come to your restaurant and share an experience together. This is all just to say, don’t go out of your way to accommodate just large groups because they are likely less profitable and please a lower number of guests.
If you have a consistently high amount of larger groups you could arrange designated large group tables that are always set up. That makes it easier to seat them, easier on you your servers to serve them, and it allows your designated smaller tables to flip more quickly.
After all we’ve talked about, the majority of these policies will only take place on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s okay to have different policies for your busy times versus your slow times. While you may not take a reservation for a 15-top on a Friday night at 6:00pm it may be beneficial to do so on a Tuesday at noon.
This may work to your advantage as well. Large groups wishing to celebrate may move their festivities from a Saturday to a Sunday to ensure a reservation time and not deal with the crowds. That’s a win for both the guest and the restaurant.
It takes some careful thought when deciding whether or not to take reservations. No matter which option you choose, you will get some backlash. Determine the solution that works best for your company and the majority of your guests and stick with it. Hold true, don’t make exceptions for “V.I.P.s,” unless they are V.I.P.s to the public as well, (actors, professional athletes, the owner of the restaurant, etc.) and even then I would hesitate to do so. Some guests may have a slight learning curve, but once everyone becomes familiar with the new system, things will run just fine. And as always, if you need help, we are here for you.