Fine dining restaurants typically accept reservations, and a mystery shop of a fine dining restaurant will include questions about the reservation process. But why is it that so many other restaurants do not accept reservations? If you have ever tried to get a table at a popular casual dining restaurant on a Saturday night, you know that the wait can be looooonnnnng. So why do they not take reservations? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if they eliminated the wait?
Although fine dining restaurants can often accommodate walk-ins outside of peak times, taking reservations allows them to better plan. Meals at fine dining restaurants often last longer than a typical casual dining experience. At a casual dining restaurant, we may be in and out in 45 minutes to an hour, while a fine dining meal could easily be twice that long. Reservations help to ensure that tables are available when required and makes it easier for staff to properly serve customers.
Most casual dining restaurants do not accept reservations, although some will for large parties. Knowing that a party of 12 will arrive at 8:00 p.m. allows that staff to set aside tables that can be put together to seat the entire party. Also, some casual dining restaurants allow customers to call ahead or use an app to “get in line” before they arrive. That lessens any wait customers may have to endure.
As mystery shoppers, it would be nice if we could always make reservations for shop visits. Having to wait an extra 30 to 60 minutes—or longer—to get a table is a hassle. If the guidelines say to make a reservation, do so. But if the restaurant does not accept reservations, you may have to wait.
There are lots of reasons that restaurants choose not to take reservations, and while it might be better for you if they did so, you can be certain that if it were better for them they would do it. Here is what restaurants know about reservations that you may not.
- The money is in the turnover. The more times a table is turned over during a evening, the more people the restaurant can serve and the more money they make. If customers leave at 7:35 and they have to hold that table for a 7:45 reservation, that is 10 minutes that the table sits vacant. Although 10 minutes doesn’t sound like much, multiply it by the number of tables in the restaurant and a typical number of seatings. It is more efficient to seat the next available party as soon as one group of diners leaves.
- The dirty little secret of reservations is that lots of people do not show up on time, or at all, for their reservations. In the previous example, let’s say that the 7:45 party you are holding a table for shows up at 8:05. Now you have had a vacant table for 30 minutes. What if they haven’t shown up after 30 minutes? When do you decide that they are not going to show up at all and release the table? And what do you do with an angry customer who shows up five minutes after you released their table?
- Taking reservations can be expensive. The restaurant needs staff to manage reservations, and/or they may subscribe to a service, such as OpenTable. There are cost associated with reservations either way.
- Want to know the secret of restaurant profits? Alcohol is much more profitable than food. When people are waiting for a table, they often order drinks in the bar. Cha-ching! More money for the restaurant.
- Having a line of people waiting for tables going out the door is great social proof. When people drive by and see a crowd, they wonder why so many people love the place, and they want to go there, too. Yogi Berra was famously quoted as saying about a St. Louis restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” The truth is that people love to go where everyone else does.
When mystery shopping, we need to follow the guidelines when it comes to making reservations (or not) and when we arrive for the mystery shop visit. The client often wants us to visit during prime time, when the restaurant is busy. However, when you are dining out on your own dime, you can choose times that are less hectic if you want to reduce the wait time and have a more relaxed experience.
Thursday through Saturday evenings are the busiest for most restaurants, so plan your evenings out for Sunday – Wednesday when you can. Arriving early (before 7:00 p.m.) or after the dinner rush (after 9 or 9:30) is one way to beat the crowds if you go out on the weekends. Call the restaurant ahead of time to ask what days and times it is easiest to get a table quickly as a walk-in, and ask about services to help you get seated faster, such as calling ahead or using their app.