New rules in the waiting game, but don’t discard all the old ones

A restaurant’s no-reservations policy can turn the most amiable hostess into a tyrant and the most laid-back guest into a monster—fueled by hunger and impatience. I’ve been that customer. I put my name on many wait lists of hot new restaurants that only take reservations for parties of six or more. I’m told a table will be ready in 30 minutes or even 45, but an hour passes and I’m still waiting, increasingly agitated as I inch closer to the host stand for the third time. It’s even worse when you have hungry, whining children in tow—an experience I’d like to forget when I tried to get a table at The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s while my kids were young.

But haphazard waitlist procedures are often to blame. One particular restaurant visit stands out for me. I went with a couple of friends to a very popular and very small Asian restaurant and we gave the hostess our names. She wrote them down on a scrap of paper filled with a maze-like drawing of the floor plan and the 20 or so tables in the place. It looked like something a third-grader would create. As she shuffled the seating arrangements by penciling in and erasing names, I did feel her pain. But the pain of the crowd was greater, and the hostess could have used a bouncer that night to fend off the angry patrons. Two hours later, we finally did get a table through this primitive system, but it was kind of miraculous.

Now there are several apps for that—waitlist technology that benefits both customers and restaurant staff. Guests can put their names on a real-time waitlist through their mobile devices, then hang out at home, go shopping or have a drink at the cool bar that just opened while tracking their place on line until their table is ready. A cooler, calmer customer arrives at the restaurant and when that happens, check averages can go up. So reported a couple of casual-dining operators during a panel at CSP Business Media’s Restaurant Leadership Conference last month in Scottsdale.

“Customers are nicer when they do sit down because they don’t have to wait,” said Greg Cyrier, a franchisee of 43 Chili’s. Some restaurants see a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales on Friday and Saturday nights, reported another panelist.

Cyrier also leverages the technology to improve interaction at the host stand. “Most hostesses are young and inexperienced,” he said. “The waitlist apps give guests the perception that the host is in control, making for a better customer experience.”

The technology seems to be catching on with no-reservation casual-dining chains, but indies—like that small Asian place with the scribbled, irrational seating plan—are lagging behind. Sometimes, there’s an upside to that. A few weeks ago I was out with six friends. We were patiently waiting for a large table to finish their coffee and pay the check—but they weren’t budging. Waiting in a small entryway to the restaurant, we were getting jostled and stepped on for close to 20 minutes. When we finally sat down, the manager apologized and popped open two bottles of sparkling wine to make up for the wait. Free bubbly makes everything better.


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