Restaurants, non-reservation and reservation-taking are aiming to keep their regular customers happy while keeping seats filled throughout operating hours, and the kitchen humming along profitably.
To shed some light on reservations and the customer factor, Total Food Service turned to four successful restaurateurs for a roundtable discussion to explain how they do it:
· Yuka Abe, Director of Operations, Aquavit, New York
Cornell University Hotel School alumna Abe began her career at the original Aquavit location, before joining the Townhouse Restaurant Group. She returned to Aquavit in 2012 to oversee the restaurant’s daily operations alongside Executive Chef Emma Bengtsson, New York’s only female chef bestowed with two Michelin stars. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner with 52 seats in the Dining Room, 24 in the Bar and Lounge.
· Ralph Brennan, Owner, Brennan’s, New Orleans
Brennan’s originally opened in the iconic pink building at 417 Royal Street in 1946. In 2013 the restaurant closed and was then purchased by Ralph Brennan. The restaurant returned to its original glory in November 2014 and remains a classic New Orleans destination.
· Mistie Cohen, Owner and President of Oren’s Hummus, San Francisco
Opened first location in Palo Alto, California in 2011. She now has locations operating from morning until night in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, and San Jose.
· Gina Chersevani, Owner, Buffalo & Bergen, Washington, D.C.
Opened 2012 in Union Market, this neighborhood gathering spot has seats for 22 at the counter and 60 outside. The patio operates from 8 a.m.- 9 p.m.
If you are a no-reservations restaurant how do you manage to keep seats filled while accommodating regulars so they remain loyal/keep returning?
Brennan: Only the Roost bar is no reservations.
Chersevani: Humor! You have to watch your numbers as closely as you watch your social media. We are just nice, offer drinks while guests are standing and waiting, and we suggest that they wander through, or sit somewhere else, in the market while they are waiting.
Cohen: Our Palo Alto location is the only one that does not accept reservations. It does not affect business; our regulars know the best windows to come where it will not be busy, and/or works well for them. Our guests wait 20 minutes and at night we can end up at a 30-minute or more wait. Our food is quick to the table so it allows guests to stay and enjoy their experience as long as they would like and/or move on with their day or night as quickly as they would like. This keeps our guest wait times for tables short. We also use a Nowait, Yelp’s system that allows guests to walk in town and be alerted by automated call and text when their table is ready.
Do you do anything special for these regulars in terms of communication/outreach pre-restaurant arrival, bonus courses during a meal, expedited seating upon arrival, etc.?
Brennan: We always give our regular guests first right of refusal on special dates. We pay attention to their specific requests, and if there is a certain table they frequently dine at or what they desire to drink. We try to continue and review the guest’s history, as tradition is very important in New Orleans. Once they arrive, we try and ensure that all of their favorites are ready and waiting for them. Our guests like to know that we plan for and anticipate their arrival.
Cohen: We use Nowait; it allows guests to add themselves to any existing waitlist and allows guests to expedite seating before arrival. The system does not allow them to add themselves unless they are within a specific distance. Walk-ins also are added to this; and if they choose to walk around Nowait provides an automated text and call to let them know that the table is ready. Our Cupertino location uses Allset, which allows guests to pre-order, and pre-reserve a table. We then have a table with food ready for when they arrive. This supports guests who have a very limited time to dine. Everything is prepaid so there is nothing else that needs to be processed.
With the advent of technology, how have you kept that personal touch and implemented technology in such a way that regular guests feel special?
Abe: As a restaurant that is over thirty years old, an enormous factor in our continued success is the support of our regulars. We have some guests who dine with us every week at the same time, while others that visit us every year for our traditional Swedish holiday celebrations. Technology has played a huge role by allowing us to keep detailed notes on everyone’s preferences so that each time they visit their experience is as personal as possible.
Brennan: With technology, it’s all about keeping notes of our guests’ preferences so that when they return we are better able to cater to what they like or dislike. The goal is to add layers of details during and after each visit.
Chersevani: Technology allows us to remain in contact with guests and enhances face-to-face communication with them.
Cohen: Our philosophy is happy employees bring happy guests. Our employees are very happy and enjoy every guest interaction. They are well trained, knowledgeable and truly treat every guest as if they are their guests, not just a table they are turning. Our culture promotes that every person who walks through the door is valued and appreciated. We feel technology supports our communication, and timing of tables does not interfere with the guest experience.
If you take reservations, do you leave tables for walk-ins and what’s the % of seats? Do you require a credit card deposit to hold a reservation? What’s your cancellation policy? Do you call in advance to confirm the reservation?
Abe: We do accept walk-ins; however, we don’t necessarily reserve a set percentage just for that. We take walk-ins only if space allows in our dining room as well as our bar and lounge. In terms of reservations, we take deposits for all dinner reservations and for parties of 5 or more. Our deposit is $50 per person and our cancellation policy is 24 hours in advance in order to be refunded the deposit amount. Guests receive an email to confirm their reservations.
Brennan: We accept as many reservations as possible depending on staffing and which rooms we choose to open on any given day. While we always do our best to welcome guests who walk in, our focus is first and foremost on the guest who planned to dine with us.
Cohen: Other than at Palo Alto, we accept reservations. In order to keep things flowing smoothly for walk-ins, we normally accept reservations before 11:30 a.m. Depending on the location and space size we take 30% in reservations.
This keeps tables open for walk-in parties. We do not require a credit card for reservations unless it’s a special buy-out event. We do not have a cancellation policy for normal reservations. However, we only hold tables for 15 minutes from the reservation time and the whole party must be there to be seated. We always call the day of to confirm reservations.
How do you bundle all of the technology so that the POS and “Open Table/RESY/Tock” or whatever system you use for reservations talks to your front-of-house inventory management and manages back of house for your bottom line?
Abe: A major advantage and a big reason why we switched to Tock is that it allows us to plan in advance, which menus are ordered, allowing the kitchen to order with less surplus. For instance, in the past, we would accept reservations for the dining room but did not know whether guests would be ordering our three-course prix fixe or our ten-course chef’s tasting menu, so we had to prepare for every possible situation. Moreover, now that we know what each table will want ahead of time, we are able to better manage our turn times for each service, which also reduces waste for the back of the house.
Brennan: We use Open Table, and of all the technology we use, our POS helps us the most – specifically with our wine program. Our wine list syncs with the POS so that we are always able to have an accurate inventory count and are always able to deliver the wine to our guests.
Cohen: We accept a lot of large catering orders and/or reservations that have pre-order menus. This is placed into our Aloha/NCR systems so the back of the house can better prepare and receive the orders. We do have pre-shift “huddles”, so the entire team is aware of large reservations, catering orders or to-go orders for the day, These advance orders support the team in prep, staffing, and ensuring we are all on the same page about each day. We also include all reservations made with managers into our Yelp Nowait system. We can reserve and pre-set tables for these reservations and ensure staffing of our team is in place.
Francine Cohen, an industry veteran who runs the hospitality industry focused strategic marketing firm and online publication insidefandb.com, applauds these restaurateurs for masterful balancing acts. She concludes, “Guests visit restaurants to enrich their lives while filling bellies. Therefore, we need to evaluate every front and back of house decision through that lens as well as through our operational view. It’s a fact that the most perfect meal can be ruined by a negative experience; but when technology is married to hospitality and you end up maximizing covers, profitably and the guest experience, everyone wins.”