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How to Pace Your Tables

Chef And Waitress Discussing Menu In Restaurant

Pacing tables appropriately during service might just be one of the biggest conflicts between the front and back of house. The timing of a guest’s meal is no easy task, which is why many restaurants utilize expeditors at the pass to ensure that orders are cooked in a timely fashion. Responsible for coordinating the flow of food from line to floor, the “expo” keeps the pace of the restaurant moving. In addition to instructing the kitchen on when to fire a dish, expos might also be responsible for finishing the dish (like adding the appropriate condiment in the right serving dish) before it reaches the table. As the first domino in the line, poor pacing from the expo will lead to orders not coming out of the kitchen correctly, unsatisfied customers, low tips, and well…so on it goes.

In many restaurants, however, those expo responsibilities rest on the shoulders of a front-of-house manager or even the servers themselves. The pass is the last point of contact a plate will have from the cook’s hands to the customer’s table, making it crucial to ensure the quality, taste and presentation is correct. As a general rule most front-of-house staff do not have the training or knowledge to fill the shoes of an expo, resulting in creating a poor first impression.

Still, a restaurant operates due to the skill of the entire team, not a single individual, so here are some easy ways to train all members of your staff to better coordinate the pacing of a meal.

The Host/Hostess
Setting up a good seating pace in the restaurant starts with your host or hostess. While it’s important to have every seat filled (that’s how you make money after all!), you could overwhelm the kitchen if it’s hit with 20 tables at once. While your host can’t control how many people are flooding through the doors, he or she can control the amount of reservations per given time slot. Creating an efficient reservation system (especially for holidays and other busy events, like graduation) helps throttle the flow of customers at any given time.

Also consider giving the kitchen regular open menu counts, meaning let the kitchen know how many menus are out to indicate how many people are about to order. Doing these regular counts identifies the pace in the restaurant and to seat appropriately. For example, if there are 4 open tables available to seat in different sections, but there are still 16 open menus, the host might consider slightly delaying the seating. Staggering your tables as little as 5 minutes can help you avoid longer ticket times, more waste and unhappy customers and staff.

Some might say that a kitchen should never be overwhelmed because tables are seated, and that perhaps you have a poorly run/designed kitchen or a poorly designed menu. That’s a fair argument of course, and those are great areas of your restaurant to examine if you consistently experience long ticket times or frustrated employees and customers. Also consider your bussers and food runners, who can help deliver drinks and food, and clear tables. The sooner a server can present the check, the more quickly a table can be turned (and dishes can be cleaned!).

The Servers
Servers might have one of the most difficult jobs in the restaurant. Not only are good servers wicked multitaskers, but they are the face of your restaurant. As the liaison between diners and the kitchen, servers are (literally) face-to-face with any problems that customers might be experiencing, the most common of which concerns timing.

When a table is seated, the server is responsible for getting a read on the customer. Find out if that table is hoping to linger over a bottle of wine, or maybe they need to catch a show. Sometimes the server might have a table where one guest orders an appetizer as an entrée, which means that a dish which traditionally arrives before the main course should be delayed and come out with the rest of the dishes (lest you create an awkward situation where one guest is eating by themselves). Should you run into any of these scenarios, be sure to ask your table if they want the dishes to be “coursed out” or to come out as soon as they’re ready. Pacing the courses appropriately ensures your guests have pleasant meal.

Every server should have an understanding about the time it takes to fire every dish on the menu. When a kitchen receives a ticket, they’ll fire the dish immediately. Depending on the item, it could take anywhere from 8 minutes to 20 minutes, which is why the server should stagger the tickets appropriately. Fire a dish too early and the food will arrive at the table too soon, or it’ll remain baking under a heat lamp. Fire a dish too late, and well, you’ll get the stink eye from your table for the rest of the meal.

When joining a new restaurant, spend some time with the menu. Don’t just consider the flavor profiles, optimal pairings or potential allergens, also consider its cook time. With that added knowledge you can help your guests choose menu items that’ll make for a more successful meal.

The Kitchen
Hidden in the “back of the house,” the kitchen often gets the blame for a lot of the problems concerning the food. Issues concerning cook temperatures, the omission of potential allergens, etc. could be chalked up to poor communication between servers and the kitchen. However, the issue meal pacing might not be so simple.

Because a kitchen runs by a very methodical process, dishes are fired immediately upon receiving the ticket. Typically coordinated by the expo, the kitchen takes its orders from a single chain of command to ensure an organized, methodical process. In theory this process should be flawless, but in reality, the issue concerning dishes fired too quickly (or too late) is an all too common to have.

So what can you do?

It all starts with training. Ideally the Sous Chef will train every new server, expeditor and cook on each menu item. Not only will your staff become better informed when customers ask about flavors or potential allergens in the dishes, but the entire team can more easily coordinate the pacing of every table in the dining room. Cross-training staff is time consuming, but with the right system in place it can become more efficient. Utilize your pre-shift as an opportunity to bring the front-of-house and back-of-house together. During this time you can discuss special menu items and answer questions (Flavor profile? Are substitutions available? Cook time?); it’s a great way to build a cohesive, integrated team to ensure everything moves smoothly from service, from back to front!

About Natalie Fauble

Natalie Fauble is the Online Marketing Manager - Content & SEO for Tundra Restaurant Supply. As a digital marketer with a passion for the restaurant industry, Natalie helps companies shape their brand through thoughtful, fun and innovative content strategies. When she isn't blogging for Tundra Restaurant Supply you can find her in her vegetable garden or in the kitchen whipping up one of her favorite dishes.

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