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Camping guests

Question:

We are blessed to be a small but very busy restaurant. What is the proper way to deal with customers who come in for dinner but then spend hours just sitting at their table talking and drinking as if we were a bar? Is there a protocol to follow?

– John Johnson, Owner, Broadway Oyster Bar, St. Louis, MO

Answer:

In this column, over the past two-plus years, we have addressed questions ranging from controlling fruit flies to the legality of unpaid internships. If there is one most-frequently-asked-question, however, it is how to deal with campers in their many variations: how to get guests to leave promptly after paying so you can turn the table; how to get the last tables out so you can clean up, send hourly employees home and get some sleep yourself; how to get low-revenue guests like a business person with a laptop who spends the morning with his cup of coffee and free refills occupying valuable real estate to pack up and move along.

This week, I want to address a core strategy for dealing with campers and hope readers will chime in with a comment below on the strategies they use.

  1. Be sure the guest is the problem. Too often, restaurateurs complain about the long time it takes to turn tables and, when I look at the problem closely, guests would be perfectly happy, or might even prefer to shorten their time at the table. The problem is if it takes an extra few minutes between a guest perusing the menu and a server taking the order, another few minutes to enter the order into the POS, a slow kitchen, and most frustratingly for both owners and guests, a slow check dropping and payment process, the meal could take as much as 30-40 minutes longer than it should. Before worrying about the guests’ behavior, make sure your system is tight and that the guests are indeed the holdup.
  2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Restaurateurs sometimes fume that guests are camped at tables and have no appreciation for the line out the door or sense of urgency on the part of the staff. True! But if the circumstances are made clear from the outset, the guests may not only be aware of the problem, but may be an ally in keeping your tables turned. Michelle DeLorenzo, working as a hostess at Prune in New York City during busy brunch shifts, would let people know when offering them a table that they were extremely busy so the table would only be available for 90 minutes. As long as the kitchen got the food out quickly, she said, guests would usually honor the request.
  3. Just Ask and Buy Them Off. Joana Herrera, owner of Mariachi Mexico in Armonk, NY, likes to use nonverbal cues like wiping tables, putting up chairs and raising the lights at the end of the night, and clearing every possible item from the table, to encourage campers to move on. She admits that it works but that strategy can sometimes backfire with nasty looks or comments from guests. By the end of the evening, she’s usually too tired to care. Try simply explaining the situation and offer the guest a reward for their good humor such as a free drink or dessert at the bar, a promotion for their next visit, or a treat to go.

Beyond this formula, I’m sure readers have examples of what works. Leave them in the comment field below.

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