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How to enliven a restaurant during the winter doldrums

empty dining room
Photograph: Shutterstock

Question:

Sometimes I feel like I can’t win. Before the holidays, business was nonstop and I couldn’t accommodate everyone, especially on the weekends. In the doldrums between New Years and Valentine’s, a regular told me it “feels dead” in my restaurant.

– Owner, fine dining

Answer:

This situation is a case of “You can’t please everyone.” Remember that when dining out, the food and beverage are just part of the experience—people can eat and drink at home. They also come to you for the atmosphere, vibe and overall experience, including the food and beverage. I was recently at a restaurant in NYC with a similar complaint—a once hot-ticket place where you had to know someone to get a table was now sitting empty. When asked about this, the server’s retort was brilliant: “Do you want it to go back to when you couldn’t get a table?” Guests like their restaurants busy but not too busy. Unfortunately, you have little control over exactly how you will achieve that.

However, there are some strategies you can use to make guests feel like they are not the only ones in the dining room. First, consider segmenting your dining room space and keeping your seating tight. When a guest sees a few other tables occupied across a large space, their eyes go to the vast middle. Seating a few tables in relatively close proximity to one another creates a smaller, cozier space within your larger dining room. Be sure you have the right music playing at the right volume to liven the space as well.

Second, look closely at when these slow periods are happening. If you have a seasonal restaurant, there may not be much you can do. But if you find patterns in your reservations or revenue by the hour, you may be able to address it. For example, if you are slow early, can you run a happy hour promotion to get people in, or simply start seating later? If it is a beginning of the week problem, can you develop a promotion to address that?

Third, technology may have some interesting solutions. For the last few years, some reservation systems have the ability to offer discounted tables at off-peak times. Some systems and third-party vendors  still offer that ability. Others allow restaurateurs to market not just available tables, but also products such as tasting menus, custom culinary and wine experiences or tours. Maybe you can’t fill the room on a Tuesday, but would a cooking class with the chef or a ticketed private party with a winemaker and a DJ do the trick?

Finally, like many guest concerns, find ways to turn the opportunity into a positive. Even if it’s not totally accurate, tell your regular how refreshing you find this slower time of year: It’s an opportunity to try new things, reflect on the past year and plan some new initiatives for the coming year, or to go above and beyond for devoted regulars. And then do that.

More on managing volume here.

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