How to Improve Your Restaurant's Seating Strategy

By improving your restaurant's seating strategy, you can create highly memorable dining experiences.

What do people do when they don’t feel like cooking and want to get out of the house? They go out to eat.

According to a 2016 survey from Zagat, the average American goes out to eat four times a week; Americans also now spend over 2 billion dollars more on restaurants than they do on groceries, two promising stats for hungry restaurant owners and operators eager to capitalize. And while the restaurant industry generated an impressive $799 billion in sales in 2017, 26% of first-year restaurants closed due to fierce competition in an already oversaturated market.

What’s the secret behind the success of the other 74% of new restaurants who survived? Driving repeat business by creating the best experience possible for new and returning guests. And one way to do that is by improving your restaurant seating strategy.

So, what'll it be: high top, low top, or booth? Pull up a chair and take a seat as we cover 12 ways to create the most memorable dining experience possible for guests by improving your restaurant seating strategy.

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Tip 1: Listen & Learn

Each time a guest orders from your restaurant — whether they’re dining on site or at home — you have the opportunity to enhance their future visits with what you learn about their preferences now.

One of the best places to record learnings about guests' preferences is within your restaurant’s reservation booking software. Many third-party reservation solutions offer you the ability to include fields where your guest can list likes, dislikes, allergies, and whether it’s a special occasion; some even give the opportunity to log in to the reservation site by syncing up a social media account.

By allowing guests to log in and make reservations with a social media profile, your system will have access to the rich data social media sites use to create user profiles, enabling you to create equally rich guest profiles within your POS system.

Incorporate the guest data recorded by your restaurant’s reservation software into the guest profiles within your restaurant’s customer relationship management (CRM) platform, along with any other notes or observations their server may want to share after their visit in order to provide the best experience going forward.

Do they prefer a quiet area? Outdoor? By a window? In a booth? Your servers, bartenders, and managers can help add preferences after their shift ends.

Recording guests’ preferences in your restaurant CRM platform is also a smart way to set your restaurant staff up for success: hosts will be able to seat them in an area of the restaurant that best suits their needs, servers and bartenders will have insights into dietary restrictions or preferences, and managers will be able to have more meaningful conversations and build stronger relationships.

Tip 2: Optimize & Analyze Table Turn Time

Look back at the turn time for each server, each shift, every day, to answer these two questions:

  • How long is the average table turn time for this shift?
  • How long did their parties actually sit for?

If you find that the tables in individual servers' sections consistently stay for substantially longer than the overall average table turn time, other guests are probably waiting a long time to be seated and these servers are likely a contributing factor.

If one section is turning slower than the others, you'll be presented with a bottleneck: too few seats for the patrons who want a table.

This risks guests with reservations becoming disgruntled and complaining, leaving, or dining and not coming back. Factor in negative word of mouth and this could turn into – or already be – a costly problem for your restaurant.

You have three options:

  1. Train your servers in techniques that will decrease their turn time.
  2. Increase the overall expected turn time – but only if you've noticed that many servers have a below average turn time and a few outlying servers may be skewing the average.
  3. Invest in technology that helps servers decrease their table turn time organically.

Have your front-of-house team track each party's duration (how long they've been sitting for) and have a conversation with servers if a table has passed the average turn time.

You may even learn some interesting insights about your customers' behaviors. Some parties may sit for longer later in the evening, or perhaps parties of different sizes have different turn times.

Tip 3: Remember the Name

51% of restaurant guests say that when a waiter remembers them from a previous visit, it makes their dining experience more memorable.

Given that one in four restaurant-goers will leave a restaurant and not return if their dining experience was lacking, teaching your restaurant staff to remember their guests' names has the power to transform one hit wonders into repeat business.

Each time your restaurant staff waits on a new party, encourage them to take notes about the guest in your restaurant's CRM platform. Even if the same server doesn’t help them during their next visit, your entire restaurant staff will now have access to important insights about customers (including their name), allowing them to tailor their future visits and turn them into loyal brand advocates.

Tip 4: Track Their Progress

If you've ever worked in a restaurant, you've likely heard this bit of feedback once, twice, or 500 times: “My server had way too many other tables; I saw them once every 30 minutes or so, which meant I had to actively flag to order, get drink refills, and pay.”

Regularly monitoring table status and anticipating a guest’s next need based on where they’re at in the dining cycle is the hallmark of a great server. It’s also easier said than done.

Thankfully, technology can help: Using your restaurant’s guest management platform, have servers document where their party is in their dining experience for your entire team to access.

Restaurant managers should be able to check the guest management platform and see where any given guest is at in their dining experience at any given moment.

With these real-time insights, servers and bartenders will be able to anticipate and fulfill their guests’ next need without prompting; the host stand will be able to give more accurate wait times to guests and can map out who to seat where next well in advance.

Pro Tip: Add a note or tag to the profiles of guests who spend more or less time dining than your average turn time. Tracking this will help you factor in actual times and plan accordingly.

Tip 5: Optimize Your Online Reservation Platform

Restaurant goers ranked the ability to make online reservations as one of the most important restaurant technology offerings, according to Toast’s 2019 Restaurant Success Report. If your restaurant allows online reservations, a simple way to give guests more control over where they sit is by listing seating areas available when making their reservation.

This add-on is beneficial for two reasons. First, guests who have a strong preference over where they sit will be happy to guarantee their spot in an area of their liking. Second, your host stand will be able to pre-plan the floor for the shift, and won’t have to accommodate any last-minute seating request that requires you to shuffle your seating assignments.

If guests come to your restaurant to sit in a certain area — like a patio or roof top — your host staff will be able to accommodate these requests well in advance and give more accurate wait times to walk-in guests.

Tip 6: Take Notes

Creating, maintaining, and updating notes about guests’ seating preferences should be a mandatory responsibility for your host staff. Here’s a perfect example to illustrate why.

John Smith is a regular at your restaurant, he comes in with business guests at least three or four times a month. He prefers to sit in the noisy area at the bar for the lively, upbeat atmosphere; it helps him to close sales deals.

On one occasion, John brings his mother instead of a business guest, and writes a reservation note stating he’d prefer to sit in a quieter area.

The host sees John’s name on the book for the night and immediately seats him in his usual area. He arrives with his mother, gets seated in the noisy area, has to speak up, and there is an awkward 10-minute shuffle during busy time to try to find him a quieter area.

By making an assumption about John Smith’s preferences, rather than checking the notes, you lost out on the opportunity to create a memorable dining experience for them. By failing to accommodate John’s request, you might now fall lower on his list of places to go.

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Tip 7: Ask For Feedback

Creating a closed feedback loop to send to guests after they’ve visited your restaurant is one of the most effective ways to gain insights from your guests.

It's important to cut down on the amount of time that passes between the end of a guest’s visit and asking for feedback. You want to get all the details while still fresh – and bias-free – in your guest’s mind.

Add any feedback your guests give to their profile within your restaurant’s CRM platform. Host staff, management, and servers will be able to access these insights in the future, and better tailor their service to meet the guest’s expectations.

Asking guests directly for their feedback will put you in a better position to respond to anything negative immediately, rather than after reading it secondhand on a review site like Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Tip 8: Update Waiting Guests With Text or Email Notifications

Walk-in mistake #1: Turning away walk-in guests when you don’t have any open tables.

Walk-in mistake #2: Writing down guests names on a wait list, and urging them to come back in 10, 15, or 30 minutes to check in.

Mistake #1 is outright costing you potential revenue. Mistake #2 is giving prospective customers the opportunity to walk away and find a better dining option that will fulfill their needs now, not in 10, 15 or 30 minutes.

It may be time to invest in a waitlist technology solution. Look for one that allows you to send email or SMS notifications about the status of their table.

Not only will you be able to quickly alert customers about their table by email or text, but you can also use that contact info to communicate with them in the future via SMS blast about a deal you have on a certain night, or through an email inviting them back.

Remember: Communication is the foundation of any great relationship.

Tip 9: Write It All Down

When it comes to information about your guests, don’t rely on your restaurant staff’s memories to fill in the blanks. Remembering a face or seating preference is one thing, remembering guests’ contact information, typical dollar spend, and any noted dates for special occasions – like an anniversary – is another thing entirely.

If you own a restaurant with multiple locations currently operating without a CRM system to share customer data between sites, your restaurant staff are practically flying blind. No single person – or reservation book – can be at all restaurant locations at the same time.

Investing in a CRM solution will give you a central space to store your guest’s information that your entire staff can access at a moment's notice; it will also alleviate the pain of losing valuable customer intel as a result of employee turnover.

A central CRM platform promotes consistency within your operation: Say John Smith shows up to your newest location, your staff on site have access to his complete history and profile at your fingertips, and be able to provide the level of service he’s accustomed to.

Tip 10: Reservation Not Available? Offer Back-Up Options

If a guest visits your online reservation site and there isn’t availability for the date and time that they’re looking for, what happens?

Sadly, many would-be restaurant guests are turned away in this scenario, when they could have just as easily been presented with alternative options to consider.

Just because you may not be able to seat them according to your book at that moment doesn’t mean that:

  • Your book might not change later in the night with no-shows.
  • Your other locations don’t have availability
  • It’s not worth capturing that person’s information for the future.

Here are two ways to prevent the drop-off that happens when a requested reservation isn’t available:

1. Promote your other locations if they have availability for that date and time. Just because you can’t seat them at the requested address doesn’t mean you have to turn away guest. Keep those reservations in the family.

2. Allow guests to add themselves to a waitlist – in case their preferred time slot becomes available or you are able to squeeze them into your existing reservations for that shift.

Tip 11: Invest In Guest Seating Technology

Let’s face it: Even the most skilled host can’t analyze thousands of potential table assignments at once and then make a floor plan optimized for optimum success.

A reservation system with a table seating algorithm can. Other than the obvious benefit of time savings, having a table seating algorithm available to help you map out your seating plan will ensure you have the highest number of filled tables and turns as possible — resulting in more total spend for a shift.

And those VIPs with particular table preferences? Or reservations that come in with special notes? You can choose to hard assign those at any time to override the algorithm.

Plus, some reservation systems integrate with your POS, allowing purchase data and visit history to power personalized service and drive repeat business.

Your Table's Ready, Right This Way Please

Restaurant seating is much more than putting guests at tables.

By strategically seating guests in your restaurant, you can market your business to passersby, decrease server turn time, learn more about your customers, and grow your bottom line.

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