This post was last updated on Jul 08, 2020.
DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.
Table turnover rate is one of the most important, controllable metrics in your restaurant.
Maintaining a table turnover rate that is long enough to allow guests to enjoy their dining experience, but short enough to ensure new parties won't wait long to be seated is the sweet spot.
As a restaurant owner, operator, or manager, hitting this table turnover sweet spot will amount to a palpable, productive rhythm that can be felt from the dish pit to the host stand.
A lackluster table turnover rate, however, could spell disaster for the rest of the evening; guests will wait substantially longer to be seated, servers will find themselves frantic in the weeds, the kitchen will likely get backed up, and your restaurant will definitely lose money.
Luckily, there are a variety of tried and true techniques you can train your restaurant staff on to decrease table turn time and increase profits.
Let's not waste any more time (remember, the clock is ticking). Here are 12 ways to increase your restaurant's table turnover rate.
The Restaurant Numbers & Metrics Calculator
Calculate the key restaurant metrics needed to understand the health of your business.
1. Ask About Time Constraints
I always want to ask my guests a very simple question before they sit down, or as they're being seated.
The question is: “What brings you folks in today?”
This opener gives your guests the opportunity to share why they're here, which gives you the opportunity to tailor your service accordingly. If they're in for a special occasion, you can anticipate a longer table turn time, and a special dessert will likely be involved; if they're in for a quick bite before their movie starts in an hour, you now know you'll need to expedite their dining experience as much as possible.
Pro Tip: if your table is on a time crunch, write a memo to the kitchen when you send in their order. This will not guarantee your party's orders get preferential treatment, but will let the back of house know to be mindful of their time.
2. Don’t Seat Incomplete Parties
You may have seen more and more restaurants instituting a "we will not seat incomplete parties" policy, even if guests have a reservation; incomplete parties can cause table turn times to increase, causing a bottleneck in your restaurant's meal service.
The delay caused by waiting for the rest of their party to arrive is felt throughout the restaurant; this table will now not turn as quickly as others, making it more difficult to seat waiting parties. Point blank: seating incomplete parties costs both the server and the restaurant money.
It's a smart idea to institute a "no seating incomplete parties" policy on your busiest shifts. On slow shifts, feel free to seat these parties as they don't represent a risk for the business.
3. Ask Campers to Leave
That’s right, don't be afraid to ask that table camping out in your section to leave. Just be tactful in your approach.
The oldest trick in the book is to slowly clear the table over the course of multiple visits; each time you visit the table to take another item, ask if there's anything else you can get them. Usually, people get the hint.
If you have bar or lounge seating available, offer to set them up at a table and walk them over. Hand them off to the new bartender or cocktail server and remind them how much you enjoyed taking care of them.
If the situation is really bad, you've tried every trick up your sleeve, and the table still hasn't left, offer to buy them dessert or drink at the bar (at being the operative phrase here). Accompany them to the bar where they can enjoy their dessert.
If your restaurant is more casual, or if you've established a good rapport with guests, be honest. Let them know that you have a long wait of other guests that would love their table.
Again, be tactful and polite, but most of the time your guests just get lost in their own world and understand that you need the table; they simply lost track of time. In a fine dining establishment, I often feel that the offer of a drink or a table in the bar is sufficient.
4. Suggest Items That the Kitchen Can Prepare Quickly
If you're in the thick of a rush and need to keep your tables turning quickly, suggest menu items to guests that take less time to prepare.
If a guest is torn between an entree-sized Greek salad or a well-done steak, the suggestion is clear.
5. Consolidate Your Visits
One of the biggest ways servers slow down their service is by taking two trips to accomplish what could have just as easily been done in one.
For example, don’t come to the table and introduce yourself empty-handed; bring a bread basket (if your restaurant serves bread) and some waters so you can kill three birds with one trip.
As your table waits for their order to arrive and you circle back to see how they're doing on drinks, drop off some ketchup, napkins, and any other condiments that make sense given their order so you're not scrambling to the server station once their meals arrive.
Consolidating trips will help shave 5-10 minutes off the service time.
Pro Tip: Once you've completed your mid-meal check-in after your table's orders have been delivered, print out their check and keep it in your apron. This way, if they decline dessert later on and ask for the check, you have it ready for them right then and there.
If they take you up on dessert, print out their new check once you send the order in.
6. Prepare Popular Meal Add-Ons in Advance
Filling a ramekin with salad dressing does not seem like it takes much time, but every time you need to pause during service to fill more ramekins, the minutes add up.
These minutes could have been spent building relationships with your guests and providing them with outstanding service; instead you're pulled away from your tables to do housekeeping tasks.
Get as much as possible prepared ahead of time without sacrificing quality. Fill ramekins with popular sauces and dressing, prepare certain garnishes in advance, prepare water or iced tea pitchers in advance. You can even go so far as to have certain menu items partially prepared in advance – pre-portioned desserts, for example – as long as it does not affect quality.
Again, be careful here.
The check is definitely a cue to your guest that you consider their meal complete, but if your guests are having a great time, you don’t want to cut their evening short and risk rushing them out the door to enjoy the rest of their date night at your competitor next door.
If you have offered dessert and they've declined, it's completely acceptable to bring the check and remind guests the check is all set. You can even have their check ready to present when you offer dessert, and if they say no, simply pocket it and present it later.
If there's no rush, politely remind them it's there for them whenever they are ready.
8. Invest In Restaurant Technology to Boost Operational Efficiency
"Our meal was great but it took sooo long to get the check" is one of the most common restaurant reviews you'll find on the internet.
While there are certain steps you can take to have a guest's check ready in advance (see tip #5 above), there's little that can be done to prevent the terminal traffic jam that occurs when multiple servers need to close out their checks at the same time.
Not only is the sight frustrating to management, but it's frustrating to servers who are competing against the principles of supply and demand: too many servers for too few terminals.
A terminal traffic jam delays table turn time and keeps everyone in the restaurant– both staff and guests – waiting longer than they should be.
Enter Toast Go™: a fully integrated, handheld point of sale, custom built for the restaurant industry and its unique set of demands.
Toast Go™ offers restaurants the full, robust functionality of a traditional restaurant POS in a comfortable handheld. Servers can take and check on orders, send memos to the kitchen, split checks, take payment, and more — all without having to leave the table.
Restaurants, like Odd Duck in Austin who have adopted Toast Go™ have seen a noteworthy increase in overall operational efficiency, especially with relation to their average table turn time.
“Our turn times dropped dramatically with Toast Go™ and that equates to an extra half million dollars in annual sales. And with more tables come more tips: servers each take home about $7,000 in additional gratuities per year”, says Cory Neel, General Manager at Odd Duck.
Additional Advice for Improving Table Turn Time
You can also increase table turn time in your restaurant by carefully manipulating these popular restaurant design elements.
Louder music with a faster, upbeat rhythm will encourage guests to eat faster.
Brighter restaurant colors that are closer to primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are more stimulating than warm soft tones and will inhibit your guests from relaxing as much.
Comfortable booths and big soft chairs will keep guests seated longer. Balance comfort with your need to turn tables. Also, seating guests in the interior of your restaurant will encourage them to eat faster and speed up their meal.
4. Limit Menu Options
Large menus will slow down service for three reasons.
- First, that added complexity will create longer ticket times in the kitchen.
- Second, your guests will have a harder time making decisions.
- Third, your guests are often less satisfied when their options are endless then they are with limited options.
This is known as the Paradox of Choice. It causes guests to compare their choice to the other options. If they ordered the black and bleu burger but were considering the brunch burger - even if the b&b burger was fantastic - part of their brain is always going to wonder if they other would have been better.
Don't give them the opportunity to face that dilemma.
Its most important that you find balance between quality of service, satisfied guests, per-person average check size, and table turns. Ultimately, the purpose of running a restaurant is to maximize profits. It's up to you to determine what combination of speed and revenue per guest leads to the most satisfied guests with the most profits.
Don’t be afraid to test. Try something you have never tried before. Just be sure to measure your results so you know if its helping you reach your goals.