Preventing Long Wait Times at Your Restaurant

Long waits aren’t necessarily a bad thing. People who live in San Francisco, for instance, are used to waiting for the best restaurants, ice cream, coffee, and even doughnuts. Sometimes a line can even be good PR — just ask Apple or Dominique Ansel.

Customer frustration due to long wait times is a typical problem in the restaurant industry, but it doesn’t have to be. The best restaurants work hard to keep guests happy, even when there’s a long wait. Guests are met with friendly greetings, offers of drinks, and clear expectations of how long the wait will be. Meanwhile, the staff works hard to rapidly bus and reset tables.

Usually, customers get upset only when the wait is caused by hospitality or operational mistakes. Luckily, these are both areas that restaurant owners have some control over.

Is your restaurant popular or just poorly run?

Is your restaurant popular or just poorly run?

It could very well be that the long wait time at your restaurant is due to its overwhelming popularity — perhaps guests flock to it because of its delicious dishes, impeccable service, and stellar atmosphere. Or maybe, just maybe, the wait is rooted in other causes.

The mix of your wait staff, for example, could be to blame. The wrong number and mix of servers, busers, runners, and hosts on the floor can mean slower turn times and longer lines. Or perhaps when there’s an empty table, some front-of-house staff may see an opportunity to slow down and catch up with their peers. What customers see, however, are employees hanging around while their tables are being neglected.

Another common cause for customer frustration is poor estimates on wait times. If the host is too optimistic — or simply bad at estimates — guests can pile up fast and become irate when a 15-minute wait time becomes 30.

Delayed check drops can also be a source of irritation. Let’s face it: Without the pressing need to get food to the table while it’s hot, servers tend to slow down. We’ve all had the experience of waiting for a server to drop a check or return to collect the card. It’s a bad experience for both those ready to leave and the customers still waiting to be seated.

So many variables affect the experience of dining in a restaurant — it’s hard to know which are behind your establishment’s wait time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive and take steps to eliminate the things that truly cause customers to be unhappy. Here are four strategies to minimize wait times:

Hire Unflappable Hosts

Even if you’re slammed and the kitchen is in the weeds, the host’s job is to make sure all guests feel welcome the moment they walk in. Whatever else is happening, your host should always be available to do his or her primary job: taking care of incoming patrons.

Balance Your Labor Spend

Start by looking at your labor as a percentage of sales by sections: front-of-house, back-of-house, and administration. Lean staffing might look like it saves money, but the slower turn times and longer lines it creates are often major opportunity costs. Even just three minutes in turn time, for instance, has been shown to change the amount of an average tip by more than two percentage points.

The best restaurant point-of-sale systems will deliver real-time data that can give you the insight you need. If your labor stats are skewed, don’t hesitate to call in more staff. You’ll be glad you did.

Use Technology to Free Your Customers

Calling out a name over and over until a customer finally hears it is a thing of the past. Technology has come to the rescue with some excellent waitlist tools. The right tech can provide more accurate wait times and give guests the freedom to roam around, thanks to built-in SMS functions that alert guests when their tables are almost ready. Solutions are even available to give guests the option to say “no, thanks” in a lightweight way so the next party can be seated without missing a beat.

Train and Retrain in the Art of Hospitality

Hospitality doesn’t end when dessert is finished. In fact, nowadays, it often doesn’t end until a review is posted online. Take these reviews — both good and bad — and share them with your staff. Use them as a learning experience in the ways of hospitality.

There’s always room for improvement, so make notes in your logbook about what went well and what didn’t, and then use them in the next night’s lineup. What’s key is to ensure that guests feel seen and taken care of and that they spend their wait anticipating a superb experience.