Food for Thought - March 6, 2011 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
In the popular and now classic TV sitcom “Frasier," (1993-2004), Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce play Drs. Frasier and Niles Crane. The Crane brothers are consummate snobs: highfalutin, snooty, prima donnas who take lavender scented baths and recoil at the prospect of using public transportation. Equally pretentious about their dining habits, they wouldn’t even think of patronizing an establishment that doesn’t take reservations.
In one episode, Frasier temporarily loses himself and takes on the persona of a crass, macho male. Meanwhile Niles has been endeavoring to secure them a reservation at a hoity-toity restaurant in town. When intervening events cause them to lose their table, Frasier belligerently responds with invectives and angrily asserts that they should go somewhere that doesn’t take reservations. Perish the thought! Niles instinctively slaps Frasier across the face in an effort to jolt him back into reality. Frasier suddenly transforms to his previous self and recommends an alternative but equally fancy restaurant.
Why do some restaurants require reservations and others do not?
There are a number of pros and cons and as you will see, no perfect solution to reconcile them. For our immediate purposes I’m dichotomizing restaurants between the ones that only take reservations and the ones that never do. The latter group serves people on a first-come-first-serve basis and begins a waiting list when every table is seated. Let’s begin by discussing some of the pros of taking reservations.
As my prefatory anecdote about Frasier suggests, a “reservations required” policy imbibes a restaurant with an air of cachet. Indeed, generally speaking, the more preeminent the establishment, the more likely they are to insist on reservations. Restaurants seeking distinction will mandate reservations, not merely for reputation or perception, but to cater to a more affluent demographic. Much like Frasier and his brother, a reservations-required-policy attracts wealthy customers, simply from the sense of exclusivity that reservations engender. While the reservations protocol is but one minor facet out of many that can elevate an eatery, it would certainly seem discordant for a luxurious restaurant to not take reservations.
Reservations also render many of the logistics of running a restaurant more manageable.
Having a predetermined number of patrons at specific times is far less burdensome on the staff, particularly the kitchen. Rather than an unpredictable free-for-all surging at certain intervals, reservations regulate the flow of the workload. They also facilitate planning how much food to prepare, staffing levels, and the coordination of the seemingly infinite number of accouterments and peripheral details.
Patrons like reservations because it eschews the hassle of having to wait for a table. Who relishes lining up like cattle as the queue meanders its way through the foyer, or worse yet, out the door? Good luck finding a seat at the bar. Reservations are also vital for “time-sensitive” customers, i.e., those who have another engagement such as a movie, need to be back for the babysitter, or are time constricted for sundry other reasons.
But the cons are omnipresent and one of the worst with reservations is they can actually decrease patronage and subsequent income. As stated, “Frasier-friendly” establishments attract certain customers via upscale features. Having to reserve a table is but one way for the establishment to exude sophistication as the patron feels privileged in return. But conversely, some folks may be alienated at having to make reservations. They may view such a ritual as uppity or pretentious. Or maybe the individual just simply doesn’t want to be committed to dinner at a fixed time. Life’s activities frequently make it impossible to plan meals at a definitive juncture. I have to wonder how many customers bypass the reservations-only eateries due to the imposition of a schedule.
As stated, reservations regulate the flow of the restaurant and allow for the machinery of the kitchen to operate more smoothly. But the regimentation comes with another catch. Preset reservations rarely maximize table turnover as well as a first-come-first-serve system with a waiting list of people ready to occupy empty tables at a moment’s notice. This is because it’s virtually impossible to schedule all of the reservations so that every table remains full with no gaps in-between. One party may leave early and the next arrive late. A table may become free at 7:00 but you can’t sit it because there’s a reservation for 7:30. So for thirty minutes the restaurateur is paying property taxes on that space with no income. But if tables are being filled immediately with people waiting in the wings, you can maximize your efficiency. Of course this all assumes you have sufficient business to fill your dining room within a given meal period. If you can’t, then your seating strategy is a moot point.
The worst thing that can happen with reservations is when people don’t show up and haven’t called to cancel.
Without a waiting list, their table sits empty until the next reservation. Some businesses have gone as far as to request a credit card number and then charge a fee for abandoning a reservation or canceling it at the last minute. You don’t need a degree in marketing to guess how many of those patrons plan on returning.
Having a reservations policy also costs money because depending on the establishment, you must hire additional staff to man the phones and book the reservations. With the amount of hours that restaurants are open, more than one employee is often necessitated for this task.
The time that customers spend at their tables must also be managed. The longer they linger the less table turnover and the less income. And what do you do if a table is rebooked but the first party stays longer than expected? Now it’s infringing on the next party. The people on deck will naturally be outraged to have to wait, especially when they made a reservation! The solutions are imperfect. You can try and diplomatically inform the dilatory table that you have another table waiting, but that never sits well with guests. Or you can tell individuals when they make the reservation that the table is allotted for only a circumscribed period of time. Not a fan favorite either. Or you can leave a few tables unreserved each night to allow for some flexibility. Of course that brings us back to not maximizing table efficiency.
It would appear then that the most economically feasible and least customer off-putting choice returns us to first-come-first-serve with a waiting list. But even there you can still ruffle feathers. If you are blessed enough to routinely have a wait to get a table at your facility, it can start to annoy some of your patrons. If every time someone wants to patronize a restaurant they have to wait, they will start to go elsewhere, especially the older, moneyed crowd. In the short run, if your eatery is that busy you may not care. But down the road when the novelty of your food wears off or the economy slows, you’ll regret alienating some of your potential business.
You can see then how many nuances there are on both sides of the reservations-required/no reservations coin. It certainly seems like no matter which way you go or how you organize it; to some degree you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. While it’s obvious that there is no perfect solution, in my view the best bet is a compromise that many restaurants make: a combination policy. They take reservations for the folks who absolutely need a specific time. Meanwhile, they allocate some tables for walk-ins and start a wait list if necessary. This allows you to fill the gaps on the reserved tables that didn’t show or left early. If the time at the tables must be constricted, make every effort to inform the guest when making the reservation. This is better than rushing them through dinner, or hinting they move things along during their post-meal respite.
But you still can’t please everyone and even if you did, someone won’t like it. The “Frasiers” of the world may not approve of the mixed model strategy. Allowing some walk-ins is not discriminatory enough. When it comes to elitism, even Frasier doesn’t have reservations.