While there are many factors that contribute to the success of a restaurant – like food and beverage offerings, service, and ambiance – a restaurant’s seating strategy is often one of the most important (and underrated) contributors to a restaurant’s success. From providing ample seats to restaurant booths, a thoughtful and strategic restaurant seating chart will keep customers comfortable – and coming back for more.
Whether you choose high tops, low tops, booths or (hopefully) a combination of restaurant dining options, pull up a chair and take a seat as we cover 11 ways to create the most memorable dining experience possible for guests by improving your restaurant seating strategy.
Guide to the Restaurant Guest
Learn how to navigate changing guest expectations during and after the COVID-19 health crisis.
What is a Restaurant Seating Strategy?
A restaurant seating strategy is a thoughtful approach on how to seat guests for both comfort and profit. By mixing various arrangements of seats, tables, and restaurant booths, you ensure that there’s enough space for customers and staff to move freely and safely in your restaurant’s layout.
11 Ways to Optimize Your Restaurant Seating Strategy
1. Consider the Flow for Everyone, and Test out Different Layouts
While we normally think of guests when we talk about restaurant seating strategies, your staff are just as important to consider. Think about how your layout will work if servers and bussers are walking around, or even when guests are using the bathroom. Test and re-test any seating layout you choose, and consider everyone who will interact in the space.
2. Try Out Various Seating Arrangements and Table Sizes
Want to design a seating strategy, but don’t know where to start? It’s often as simple as sketching a seating arrangement with a pen or paper, or as fancy as using architectural planning software to test out different seating arrangements. This is something you don’t want to rush – consider the number of two tops, four tops, booths, and communal seats you need, and arrange and rearrange seats as needed.
3. Make Your Seating Arrangement Accessible for All
Remember that while you want to maximize your seating arrangements for the best profits, don’t forget to accommodate differently-abled people. In addition to training your staff on the different disabilities they may encounter, ensure that seats, tables and restaurant booths are not crammed. People using wheelchairs will struggle to navigate between tables, creating an awkward and uncomfortable experience (and two words we want to avoid guests feeling!).
Consider the mandatory ADA codes a bare minimum. In the same vein, try to avoid steps when looking at potential restaurant sites – it’s best to not have steps at all, if possible, because using ramps isn't always feasible financially, and they can take up a lot of that precious square footage. If there are different zones within a restaurant, be sure not to cut off accessibility to those in wheelchairs.
4. Analyze and Optimize Table Turn Time
Reflect on the turn time of 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:
Train your servers in techniques that will decrease their turn time.
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.
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.
5. Track Table 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 get their attention 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 POS, have servers document where their party is in their dining experience. Restaurant managers should be able to check the POS and see where all guests are in their dining experience, anytime.
With these real-time insights, servers and bartenders will be able to anticipate and fulfill their guests’ needs without prompting; the host stand will be able to give more accurate wait times to guests and can map out who to seat 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.
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6. 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 rooftop — your host staff will be able to accommodate these requests well in advance and give more accurate wait times to walk-in guests.
7. Take Note of Customers’ Dining History & Changing Preferences
Creating, maintaining, and updating notes about guests’ seating preferences should be a mandatory responsibility for your host staff. Here’s an 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.
When it comes to information about your guests, don’t rely on your 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. 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 also alleviates the pain of losing valuable customer intel as a result of employee turnover.
A central CRM platform promotes consistency within your operation: if John Smith shows up to your newest location, your staff on site have access to his complete history and profile at your fingertips, and can provide the level of service he’s accustomed to.
Guide to the Restaurant Guest
Learn how to navigate changing guest expectations during and after the COVID-19 health crisis.
8. 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.
9. 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 costing you potential revenue, plain and simple. Mistake #2 is giving prospective customers the opportunity to walk away and find a better dining option that will fulfill their needs now — and not in the next 10, 15 or 30 minutes.
If you’re having this issue, consider investing in a waitlist technology solution. Look for one that allows you to send email or SMS notifications about the status of almost open tables.
You’ll be able to quickly alert customers about their table by email or text AND use that contact information to communicate with them in the future via SMS on future deals, or an email inviting them back.
Remember: Communication is the foundation of any great relationship.
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 — instead of being presented with alternative options to consider.
Just because you may not be able to seat them according to your book at the moment doesn’t mean:
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 a requested date and time is available. Just because you can’t seat them at the requested address doesn’t mean you have to turn away guests. 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.
11. 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 information 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 into 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’s 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.
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.