As wonderful as the food and drink may be and attentive as the service is, few guests feel comfortable dining in a nearly empty restaurant. There’s nothing more exciting than being “where the action is.” Problems arise, however, at restaurants too busy to seat guests upon arrival or to honor reservations. If the single greatest influence on guests’ desire to return is the way they are treated, first impressions count and set the tone, with poor hospitality forcing staff to play a challenging game of catch-up.
We’ve all experienced a seating delay. The reasons are irrelevant, the opportunities endless. Regardless of whose responsibility it may be, the best way to navigate through every such situation is with “confident humility”.
If your restaurant doesn’t take reservations, you are in no way obligated to make special arrangements for a disgruntled party as long as you’ve correctly estimated the length of time they may expect to wait. That being said, the angrier your customer grows, the more sympathetic you should act. In virtually every instance, a show of kindness and recognition begets an extra measure of patience.
In some instances, being able to turn a difficult situation around will help create lasting fans. Offering small amenities like a comfortable place to wait, or even just a gentle humble acknowledgement, can help to defuse much of the stress. For customers who reach the boiling point and announce they are leaving never to return, apologize for the inconvenience they’ve experienced and offer a sincere thank you for their interest. Since you’ve made it clear, however, that dining is on a first-come, first-serve basis, do not be pressured into giving something of value away other than your charming smile and expression of regret.
Restaurants requiring reservations are, of course, responsible for seating guests in a timely manner. If a table is not ready upon arrival, genuine apologies should be offered. Should the wait be longer than 15 minutes, however, the house must respond with something tangible such as complementary hors d’oeuvres or drinks. The value is less important than the gesture. In extreme cases, with waits exceeding a half hour, a modest gift certificate is in order. A particularly warm good bye and final expression of apology at departure complete the circle.
Sometimes we need to remind diners, through our hospitable behavior, of the role that their own attitude plays in helping to ease their discomfort. It’s no fun being on the receiving end of complaints, but finding a gracious way to remind guests of what they are doing (spending an evening free of children, work and a sink full of dirty dishes), can turn a moderate seating delay into a few extra unexpected minutes for flirting, reminiscing or further fueling the appetite. It all depends on how skillfully we handle it.
Step by Step
1. First impressions set the tone: practice “confident humility” in addressing a guest who needs to wait.
2. Provide accurate information on wait times and make extra concessions for elderly or handicapped guests.
3. Acknowledge the guest’s disappointment and apologize.
4. If you take reservations and are sure you cannot honor them for at least 15 minutes provide a nibble or, where it is legal, a glass of alcohol.
5. For extreme waits with a reservation, consider offering a gift certificate along with your apologies.