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How to Choose the Right Restaurant Service Model

Dahlia SnaidermanAuthor

What works for one restaurant may not work for another. It’s part of what makes this industry so exciting — and it’s not just the menu items either. A certain service model may help one restaurant hit target profitability while the same model could send another restaurant into the red.

When you’re coming up with your restaurant concept, there’s a lot to consider. You’ve got your menu ideas in mind 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. It includes everything from when the guest enters your restaurant (or your digital storefront) and ends once payment is completed.

It’s critical that your restaurant service model harmonizes with your cuisine, sales channels, labor force, restaurant space, and other key components.

Most common restaurant service models

The two most common service models for restaurants are table service and counter service. You’re probably already familiar with those two.

Table-service restaurants

Table service is the model that most people associate with full-service restaurants (FSRs). Here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Guests arrive at a restaurant, check in to their reservation, put their name on the list, or immediately get seated

  2. Guests are seated at a table leaves them with menus

  3. Drink orders are taken

  4. Server returns with drinks and starts taking food orders,

  5. Server continues to check in on drinks 

  6. Food is dropped by servers or food runners

  7. Server eventually returns to drop the check

  8. Server waits for the table/guests to offer payment

  9. Server picks up the check and processes payment

  10. Servers return to the table to drop the recipes and/or change

This breakdown is called the steps of service. In this example, there are 10 steps of service. This is the standard service model for full-service restaurants. There are variations with 5 steps of service, 7 steps of service, etc. They all more or less follow the same flow of guest interactions.

Most servers have worked in these service models before. This is the standard for full-service restaurants, so it should be easy for new hires to pick up on. 

Of course by sticking with the classic, you’re stuck with the typical problems facing the industry, such as higher labor cost due to increased staff overhead and an antiquated, server-centric flow of service.

Counter-service restaurants

Counter service models require more work from restaurant guests. They enter the restaurant and stand on line hopefully reviewing the menu. Once guests reach the counter, their order is placed. 

This is where variations in the steps of service for counter-service models arise, depending on cuisine type and complexity. Some restaurants are able to prepare and provide guests their order while they wait at the counter. Other restaurant types take your name or give you a number or buzzer. Then they coordinate to deliver you your order once it’s available.

Payment is almost always conducted prior to leaving the counter. After that, there’s usually no more guest interactions. Guests simply enjoy their order and leave.

Labor costs are typically much lower in these models compared to traditional table service. There are fewer staff around running the floor in the front-of-house. 

Counter-service restaurants usually don’t rely as much on tips to supplement wages, which makes sense as there are no traditional servers like you have at table-service dining. This may lead to a higher payroll as operators have to pay all their staff at or more than minimum wage to encourage retention. 

Counter service also simplifies the back-of-house. The menus are often smaller and easier to prepare, requiring less back-of-house staff. And along with labor, simpler menus simplify inventory and cost control, enabling operators to not worry about keeping track of hundreds of ingredients in your inventory.

Other restaurant service models you can implement or borrow from

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.

“Half-service,” hybrid service, fast-fine restaurants 

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. 

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 the 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. The 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.

On the other side of the small plates spectrum is dim sum, which is a style of Chinese cuisine originating in the country’s Guangodng 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 table side, 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. 

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Buffet restaurant 

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 comes 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.”

Prix fixe, multi-course, tasting menu restaurants 

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 the 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 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.


The New Steps of Service ROI Calculator

Use this calculator to learn how the New Steps of Service can benefit your restaurant and impact your bottom line.


Graduating from 10 steps of service, traditional counter service, and other hybrid models

Every restaurant is different. No two menus are the same, nor are any two restaurant experiences exactly the same. Most operations put their own slight twist on their restaurant service model. This is especially true over the past few years. 

Many restaurants have completely shifted their service models as a response to the pandemic, lockdowns, and other issues affecting the restaurant industry, labor shortage, shrinking menu sizes, and more.

One such shift is the strategic implementation of Toast products — something we’ve named the New Steps of Service.

New Steps of Service, powered by Toast

The New Steps of Service is a restaurant service model rooted in strategic restaurant technology that lets guests choose their dining timeline. It combines the traditional touchpoints of hospitality with the efficiencies of technology.

Toast’s New Steps of Service optimizes orderflows by empowering guests to order and pay whenever they like.  

For traditional table service restaurants, this works via QR code-powered mobile ordering and paying.

When a guest arrives, they scan a QR code on the table and can input their drink order from their phone, while the server is suggesting specials, filling water glasses, and making recommendations. 

As the guests are ready, they can order their meals directly from the table, without having to wait for the server to return. At the end of the meal, guests can pay directly on their phone and leave right away, not worrying about waiting for a busy server to bring back a receipt.

Now, since the ordering and paying are in the hands of the guests, servers can fulfill a more hospitality-driven role, and spend more time doing table touches, suggesting another round of drinks, or talking about the specials. And since guests can order food and drinks whenever they want to (and not having to hesitate while flagging down a server), check size increases and table turn time decreases.

The QR codes work equally as well for counter-service operations too. 

Rather than queuing in front of the counter, guests can grab a table, pull up the QR code to order, and then input the number/signifier on their number. No need to wait in line. And if there's a need to place additional orders, guests can control it from the comfort of the table.

New Steps of Service for counter-service operations also benefit from order kiosks — another self-service ordering system that helps guests beat the line and order exactly what they want. These systems are easy to use, easy to update on the menu item side, and can encourage upsells and add-ons.

For any guests not interested in QR codes — at table-service and counter-service operations — Toast’s New Steps of Service also optimizes operational workflows. Front-of-house staff are equipped with handheld POS systems that enable tableside, portable ordering and paying from anywhere in the restaurant and patio. This portability keeps servers on the floor amongst their guests — again, encouraging a more personable, hospitable experience.

Which model is right for you?

There’s a lot to keep in mind when deciding which service model you’ll use in your restaurant.

It's critical to consider 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.  

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