Every server hates “campers” – those diners who stay firmly parked in your section for hours on end, taking up a table that could have been given to another party ready to order (and tip) all over again.
For restaurant owners, table turnover can be a tricky balance. On the one hand, you want customers to enjoy a great atmosphere while they dine. It goes without saying that an enjoyable experience is more likely to bring customers back the next time. On the other hand, every minute a table remains occupied after the customer orders their food is a minute you can’t seat another party.
The fast-casual segment has table turnover nailed down to a fine art. When check averages are below $50, volume is the name of the game. These restaurants employ several strategies to help customers out the door quickly so that new customers can be served.
These strategies include loud decibel levels, which have been proven to make customers eat faster. Bright colors like red, yellow, and orange entice customers in and also help speed eating up. Purposefully uncomfortable seating also helps encourage customers to eat and leave quickly. Finally, “floating” seating – located in the middle of a room and away from walls – will turn customers over more quickly.
For independents, these strategies can be employed to get turnover moving, but at a cost. That cost comes when customers looking for a pleasant meal start complaining about loud music, go somewhere else when they see that the only tables available sit in the middle of the room, or don’t come back because their back hurt days after sitting on your furniture.
It all depends on what kind of customer you want in your restaurant. Fast casual eateries are not trying to sell you a dining experience. Their customers are looking for value and a quick serving time. If a restaurant in fast casual delivers on those two expectations, then a customer is going to tolerate the gentle nudging these establishments employ to maximize their volume.
Fine dining restaurants had better be careful about how they try to move customers out the door. Nobody wants to spend $100 on dinner and have to yell over the din at the same time. Of course, the customers who eat at a fine dining establishment understand they are paying for the experience as much as the food, and the restaurant’s owner had better make that experience a good one.
Unfortunately, many independents fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The art of managing table turnover while still providing a rich customer experience can be difficult. Some strategies to help you strike the right balance:
Segment seating. People who took the time to reserve ahead of time are looking for a dining experience that stands out from the norm. Nice, comfortable booths, quiet corners, and big partitions with lots of plants will make these customers stay longer, but chances are they are expecting to do so anyway.
Use other methods to make sure the check average is high, like presenting realistic models of dessert offerings. Anytime the customer can see what’s available rather than just hear about it, they tend to order more.
Other sections, especially near the kitchen and the entrance, should be more open, more noisy, and have a lot more “floating” furniture. On busy nights, when it’s time to turn and burn because you’re filling up with walk-ins, use these sections to get table times down and turnover way up.
Create scarcity. Like most restaurants, some nights, usually on weekends, are much busier than others. On those busy nights you want customers turning over more frequently and you don’t want reservation no-shows leaving tables empty. Many restaurants deal with this by refusing all reservations on their peak nights and taking walk-in business only.
This has the effect of creating a more chaotic environment, which turns over your tables more quickly. It also looks great on nights when there tends to be more foot traffic, because the sight of a dining area bursting at the seams does more to advertise your establishment than anything else.
Train your staff to help move customers along. Without being pushy, a well-trained staff can present several hints to help turn tables. Making sure all dishes are promptly cleared, dropping checks at an appropriate, yet early, time after the meal, and processing payment promptly will help nudge the customer towards the door.
No matter what strategies you choose to employ in your restaurant to maintain a high turnover rate, be vigilant about analyzing their success and gauging that against customer experience. Keeping turnover high is good, but only to the point where customers enjoy eating in your restaurant.