In the restaurant world, one size does not fit all. It’s part of what makes this industry so exciting — what works for one restaurant may not work for another, and the model that sent one restaurant into the red could spell success for the one down the street.
When you’re coming up with your restaurant concept, there’s a lot to consider, from your menu to your management style to your location. One of the most important things you’ll decide is what kind of service model you’ll adopt.
What is a Restaurant Service Model?
Service models in the restaurant industry are ways of preparing, presenting, and distributing food to your guests.
The two most common service models for restaurants are table service and counter service. You’re probably already familiar with those two, but we’ll define them anyway:
1. Table Service
This is the model that most people associate with full-service restaurants — guests are seated at a table when they arrive, a server leaves them with menus and takes their drink orders, the server returns with drinks to take their food orders, they (or a food runner) bring the food, they eventually return to drop the check, and then they’ll either take payment with pay-at-the-table technology or by going back and forth between the table and a POS station.
Because this is the standard for full-service restaurants, most servers have worked in this type of environment before, meaning they won’t have to be trained as extensively as you would if you implemented a more innovative service model. Also, customers are most accustomed to this framework, so it’s unlikely that the flow of service will be interrupted by someone who “doesn’t get how it works”.
However, by sticking with the classic, you’re stuck with the typical problems facing the industry, including high labor cost, because you’ll need a full roster of front- and back-of-house staff, and you won’t have much control over your table turn times.
2. Counter Service
This more informal model is where guests line up to order at a counter and either give their name or are given a number, and they seat themselves at communal or individual tables in the restaurant. They pick up their own food at the counter when their number is called. This model used to be associated exclusively with fast food concepts, but in the past few years, more and more high-end restaurants have taken this approach to cut down on labor cost. This has given way to the surging fast-casual chain restaurant like Shake Shack, Panera, and Raising Cane’s.
In these concepts, labor cost goes way down, because staff are often cross-trained to work front of house (as cashiers) and back of house. The menus are often smaller than in full-service restaurant, meaning that you don’t have to worry about keeping track of hundreds of ingredients in your inventory. However, counter service restaurants often don’t rely much on tips, so you’ll have to pay all your staff more than minimum wage if you want them to stay around for a long time.
As a response to many issues affecting the restaurant industry, including increased minimum wage and labor costs, new service models have been cropping up all over the country. These models are ways of serving your customers that — in North America, at least — are a little more unconventional.
3. Continued Service
The continued service model uses restaurant technology to let guests choose their own dining timeline. It’s similar to the elevated counter service model described above, but the restaurant still has servers.
At the two locations of Saddleback BBQ in Michigan, the dining experience starts with guests being greeted and given a menu. They then have the option to find a table or go straight to a counter to place their food order. Then, they’re given fountain drinks, or their alcoholic beverages will be prepared by a bartender, and it’s delivered to their table.
Throughout the meal, servers walk around the restaurant with handheld POS systems, and guests can order more food or drinks from any staff member — they’re not beholden to one server. This makes it easy to order more food, which makes guests happy and makes your bottom line happier. "This improves the accuracy of your order and will get your orders to the kitchen sooner so you get your food and drinks even faster," says co-owner Travis Stolicker.
At the end of the meal, guests pay right at the table on the handhelds.
4. All You Can Eat… Sometimes
The phrase “all you can eat” may conjure up images of overflowing buffets — which we’ll get to in a minute — but there are other ways to go about using the all-you-can-eat framework at your restaurant.
At Capo Boston, a one-time all-you-can-eat pasta experiment on the night before the Boston Marathon led to the implementation of “Bottomless Wednesdays.” Once a week, guests have the option to pay $30 for an unlimited amount of handmade pasta.
Chef de cuisine, Ciro Fodera, told us that it took some trial and error at first, but now, the all-you-can-eat pasta promotion has nearly doubled the restaurant’s revenue for Wednesdays. On a typical wednesday, the restaurant was bringing in $9,000, but now, it’s between $16,000-17,000. He said it helps that pasta, even when handmade, is an extremely cheap ingredient. He has also cross-trained his back of house staff to all be able to help out the pasta station on Bottomless Wednesdays, so there’s no need for extra labor on those nights.
In this model, front-of-house staff also get a boost — they get an extra super-busy day, which means more tips, but it’s also a benefit for other reasons: “They get the opportunity to upsell because they’re with that table longer, and they develop more of a connection with that guest,” said Fodera. He added that in having guests stay longer, they have a special experience and connect more with their server, so the guests come back.
Other types of all-you-can-eat service include all-you-can-eat sushi and all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, where guests are provided with unlimited raw meat and accompaniments they cook on individual grills on each table. In both cases, a la carte service is also usually provided as an alternative to all you can eat.
5. “Half-Service,” Hybrid Service, or Fast-Fine
Hybrid or half-service falls somewhere between table service and counter service. One restaurant in Chicago has decided to try this new model as a way to expand their restaurant.
At the second location of Lowcountry in Chicago, IL, guests are seated by a host, but then they get up and order food and drinks at two separate counters. They’re given table numbers, and their food and drinks are brought to their table. The first Lowcountry location, near Wrigley Field, still runs on a full-service model.
In the half-service model, the restaurant only has to hire cashiers, bartenders, and food runners for front of house, and table turns happen much faster — roughly every 40 minutes instead of every hour.
Another example of this model is Souvla, a four-location Greek restaurant in San Francisco that’s been classified as “fast-fine,” because it incorporates fine dining food, decor, and service standards, but the process of ordering mimics fast food restaurants.
Charles Bililies, founder and CEO of Souvla, told us his experience in fine dining, combined with the needs of the San Francisco restaurant industry, led to his adoption of the fast-fine service model. “I remember sitting with a lot of other restaurateurs that were kind of sitting back and really just complaining about sort of the state of the union. And so, from my end, I was like, ‘well, we can sit around here and complain and effectively die off, or we can adapt and figure out the right way to thrive.”
At Souvla, like at Lowcountry, guests come in, line up, order their food, and grab a number, and when it’s ready, the food is delivered to their tables.
6. Small Plates Service
In metropolitan cities in the U.S., most small plates bars and restaurants fall into one of two categories: tapas/meze, and dim sum.
The tapas or meze model is very similar to standard table service, with the main difference being that a server or food runner will be bringing over many more dishes to be shared across a table, sometimes in multiple rounds. It can make for somewhat more complicated ordering, especially for guests who are unfamiliar with the concept. Tapas originated in southern Spain, where the small plates are free with purchase of a beer or a glass of wine. However, virtually no U.S.-based tapas restaurant operates this way, and the small plates framework can be great for food cost.
Even if you’re buying the highest-quality olives, charging $4 for a dish of olives is massively profitable. Same goes for small-plates portions of cheese or charcuterie, which can go for more than $10. Even typical tapas that require more prep — like a portion of four ham croquettes, for example — bring in much more money than they cost to make.
However, it’s important to keep the balance: If a guest feels they’ve been overcharged for a small amount of food, or if that small amount of food doesn’t taste as good as they’d like, they won’t be back.
At the other side of the small plates spectrum is dim sum, which is a style of Chinese cuisine originating in the country’s Canton province. It’s heavy on the dumplings — which are labor-intensive to make — which are often served in sets of three or four. Other small plates, like steamed vegetables and noodles, are common in dim sum as well.
During peak hours at a dim sum restaurant, servers don’t take orders and deliver food as usual — they have a totally different role than in a typical full-service restaurant. They push carts around the restaurant with different dishes on them, and guests will ask for items as they see them come out on the carts. When they’re given a dish from a cart, their menu sheet is marked with that item so the server can tally the bill at the end. Sometimes servers pour sauces over dishes tableside, or they cut items into smaller pieces — like rice noodle rolls or steamed greens — for easier sharing.
During cart service, cooks prepare large batches of each dish and portion them out into steamer baskets or plates, instead of making individual portions of different dishes one at a time, so it’s great for efficiency and for planning your inventory.
In off-peak hours, dim sum restaurants function more like tapas or meze restaurants, in that guests interact with a server to order many small plates for the table.
7. Kiosk Self-Service
Usually put to work in fast-casual or fast food restaurants, kiosks can speed up service and drastically lower your labor cost.
Shake Shack is now in the process of rolling out kiosks to several of their locations — and it’s not a coincidence that the kiosk locations are in Seattle, San Francisco, and Manhattan, where the minimum wage has gone up significantly in recent years.
When you’re trying to pay your staff well and offer competitive benefits to incentivize them to stay at your company, it can be easier to provide an amazing compensation package to fewer employees, explained a representative of Shake Shack to Eater.
While some worry that the loss of human interaction means we risk missing out on moments of hospitality, others believe that they can make for a smoother, more pleasant customer experience — and that it leaves the staff free to provide hospitality and amazing food.
Danny Meyer, CEO of Shake Shack and Union Square Hospitality Group, explained to us in an episode of The Garnish Podcast that technology can actually increase hospitality. “Tech provides the convenience, but touch is the experience,” he continued. “Whenever tech can actually enhance hospitality, it's a good thing for us, and we just have to be nimble, we have to stop fighting it, because the genie is out of the bottle. People are not going to want life to be less convenient, and we have to look for ways to use tech to be our friends… we can save people time, make the experience much more seamless for them, and spend more of our time in the act of welcome.”
8. Buffet Service
Buffets, as previously mentioned, are the classic American form of all-you-can-eat dining, but they’re also common in Indian cuisine, among others. At a buffet, hotel pans are filled with food that’s kept warm by heating elements below — or kept cold with refrigeration — and guests are encouraged to keep serving themselves until they can’t eat anymore.
The profitability of buffets come down to charging the right amount for the price of entry: you need to charge enough so that the guests who literally eat into your profits — sometimes called super-diners — are offset by those who don’t eat nearly as much as they paid for.
There are many tricks that buffet operators use to keep their profits in check. First, and most famously, the plates provided are smaller than at full-service restaurants, so that guests have to keep making trips from buffet to table and back if they want to keep eating. The cheapest items are also usually placed at the beginning of the buffet line so that guests fill their plates with pasta and don’t have as much plate real estate left for the steak.
To price your buffet properly, you’ll need to know the cost of all the food you’ve presented to the guests and how many guests paid to enter. It’s also helpful to know the cost of each hotel pan full of food, so you can track how much of your inventory was eaten throughout a meal, by weight.
Buffets typically employ fewer front-of-house employees, which is good for your labor cost, but the job is much messier than it is in full-service restaurants.
Even though buffet guests serve themselves, former buffet server Hunter Coffey told us that she interacted with guests even more than in a full-service restaurant. “It was a lot harder, believe it or not. People would come in and make a mess with all the food they were trying to eat on the tables, and just leave it [for us to clean]. I think we interacted [with guests] more because we were constantly having to remove plates from the tables and refill drinks.”
9. Prix Fixe Service
Prix fixe means fixed-price in French, and the term is used to describe when a restaurant has one or two set menus for the evening, with little to no customization, and with several courses for each guest. Sometimes the menus change daily, but many restaurants rotate weekly, monthly, or seasonally.
While prix fixe menus are usually implemented in fine dining restaurants, casual full-service restaurants can take a page out of the fine dining book by creating multi-course set lunch or dinner menus for special occasions, or on weeknights when you want to attract more guests.
Prix fixe or set menus are great for back-of-house operations, because there are fewer dishes to plan for, in terms of inventory, prep, execution, and cook time.
They also simplify things for servers, who don’t have to deal with customization and can focus only on providing the best service possible.
When it comes to pricing these menus, you should use a menu item cost calculator for each item, add them up, and reduce the price by about 10%. You won’t miss that 10%, because it’s much less likely for a customer to actually order several courses when they’re not grouped together — ticket size will be much higher than usual, even with the discount. Many restaurants offer prix fixe menus with wine pairings for each course, which also drives ticket size way up.
10. Build-Your-Own Service
Popularized by sandwich shops and then adopted by burger spots, burrito places, and salad chains, the build-your-own model has become the norm in many fast food restaurants due to the increased demand for customization. Subway, Chipotle, sweetgreen, and Blaze Pizza are all examples of this model, but independent businesses have begun to adopt it as well, even in full-service restaurants.
At Happy Dog in Cleveland, OH, several types of hot dogs are offered with 50 different toppings. Picky and adventurous eaters alike can find their ideal meal, and since it was originally a music venue, the restaurant also has trivia nights and live music, drawing crowds on slower nights.
When the build-your-own model is implemented in a full-service restaurant, servers need to have excellent memories and even better patience: guests can take a long time to decide on topping combinations.
In terms of food cost, when dealing with a build-your-own restaurant, it’s important to track your sales data very closely so you know how much of each ingredient to order to avoid spoilage and waste.
Which Model is Right For You?
When deciding which service model you’ll use in your restaurant, there’s a lot to keep in mind, including what kind of technology you want to invest in, what kind of employer you want to be, what you want the guest experience to look like, what kind of food you’ll serve, and how you’ll aim to confront challenges like rising labor cost and minimum wage. You have a lot of options — there’s no one way to run a restaurant — so talk through all the service models above with your business partners and get to work.