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How to handle guests at closing time

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Question:

I recently had a disagreement with a guest. Our dinner hours are 5-11 p.m. A couple came in shortly before 11 p.m. when we had already begun breaking down and asked to be seated. The man insisted that we had to seat them because our published hours show we’re open until 11 p.m. The woman seemed mostly embarrassed he was so difficult. He left upset. Was he right?

– Restaurant Manager, Green Bay, WI

Answer:

Like a lot of the questions we address in this column, the problem is a disconnect between expectations. Your guest reads the hours as the last seating, while you write it (at least on a slow night), as closing time. This vagueness usually works in the restaurant’s favor. For example, on a busy night you can happily extend your hours and on a slow night, pack it in early without officially changing the times. This confusion tends to cause frustration on the part of guests.

Of course you are no under obligation to serve this guest—you can refuse service. But that doesn’t solve the problem of a dissatisfied guest who may not return or, worse, may share his frustration with friends in person or via social media. And for every argumentative guest, there are likely more that slink away in quiet disappointment.

Consider changing your hours to a last seating time, being clear that your posted closing time is in fact your last seating time, or posting the time of the latest possible reservation to prevent confusion, For example, dinner is served from 5:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., with the last seating at 9:30 p.m. While it might be tempting to chalk this one up to an unreasonable guest, reinforcing the idea that no restaurant can please everyone, clear communication could have prevented this one. 

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