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How to handle camping customers

Question:

We have a very scenic location and guests tend to "camp" at their tables for too long. Any creative solutions to urge customers to get up? We tried the "anything else for you" and "dropping checks" strategy and even buying them a drink at the bar.

– Bernard, Owner, Cap’s on the Water, St. Augustine, FL

Answer:

In response to a previous column on guests with laptops taking up valuable table space, a few readers submitted questions about how to handle “campers” in general, but especially at restaurants with live music, a scenic location, or a similar attraction that makes guests want to spend the night.  I have seen restaurants try to handle this problem in various ways: posting language on the menu or at the host station (“In order to offer all of our guests a positive experience, we ask that you limit your time at the table to two hours“); giving end times with the reservation (“Mr. Smith, we have you confirmed for this Saturday evening from seven to nine-thirty”); or even eliminating dessert.

First, it is important to be sure that the problem in fact lies with the guest.  Are you doing everything you can do to take orders as soon as guests are ready, deliver food and beverage promptly, clear, drop the check and process the payment quickly?  I have worked with some restaurants where they accused guests of lingering but a close look revealed the restaurant team was setting a slow pace.

If in fact the problem lies with the lingering guests, take a lesson from any relationship: communication is key.  Michelle De Lorenzo, a host at Prune restaurant in New York City says, “On particularly busy shifts like brunch, we tell guests that we need a table back by a certain time and playfully nudge them when that time is approaching.  Most “get it”—some even ask for the check before we drop it.  Of course, some scream at the host.”

Indicate that guests always have the option of taking dessert to go.  Because of your scenic location, this may have the double benefit of getting guests out the door and increasing the check average if dessert after a stroll along the water is a more appealing notion than dessert now.

Finally, make sure your problem is truly a problem.  Guests expect to wait for a table during peak times and a single-minded focus on turning tables may backfire in the form of dissatisfied guests.  Rather than rushing your guests through, focus on providing the best possible experience during peak times, which might drive business to less-popular times.

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