Right after I graduated from college, I moved to New York City and got a job working as a hostess for the Blue Water Grill in Union Square. It was a bustling restaurant with 310 seats across three levels (main floor, lower, and mezzanine) and I loved it. There was nothing more thrilling than working there on a Saturday night with every table seated, a throng of people in the foyer and bar areas, and a 30-60 minute wait that would last for 4 hours straight. The restaurant was so busy and massive that we had 3-4 hostesses working at one time on those Saturday nights.
What I learned while working there is that I’m an operations geek – I get a high off of making sure that things are running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. At Blue Water Grill, there were certain things that we could do up front that clearly made our restaurant operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and there are tips I learned that would apply to any restaurant. Share these with your hosts and hostesses today and start seeing results tomorrow:
1. Fill tables early by giving customers a deadline.
You can hold a table for that 6:45 pm reservation but it’ll sit empty and make no money for you in the meantime. Instead, consider the young family that shows up at 5:30 without a reservation. They don’t want to stay longer than an hour since their kids will implode well before that time. So let them know that they could put their name on a waitlist OR you could offer them a table you’re holding for a reservation as long as they can vacate in the time allotted. (Then quietly tell their server about the deadline so they can help you pull off the agreement).
2. Be transparent about the trade-offs.
I once had Brooke Shields show up without a reservation on a very busy night. She was polite about the situation and waited patiently with her party in the bar area while I scrambled to see where I could seat her. The only table about to turn was our highest visibility table right at the front of the restaurant—a celebrity’s worst nightmare since it could invite unwanted attention, so I wanted to avoid seating her there at all costs. However, a few minutes later she appeared in front of me looking slightly panicked. She explained that there were a few guys at the bar who wouldn’t leave her alone and asked if there was anything I could do for her. Without any great options, I decided to lay out the choices for her to decide—get seated in a spot where everyone passing by would gawk at her, or wait at the bar with the hecklers until a more ideal table opened up. She happily chose the high visibility table (which she may or may not have seemed as happy about if I had seated her there without explaining her options first).
3. Don’t let dirty dishes sit.
The number of customers that you can serve in a night (and therefore the revenue you can make) is dependent on how fully you utilize your available seats. You need to minimize the amount of time that a table is empty between parties, and the more your bussers need to do between parties, the longer the table sits. So have your bussers pre-clear dirty dishes while the party is waiting for their check. As an added bonus, it’ll give your customers a more pleasant experience to sit at an uncluttered table.
4. Play the odds if you’re a bigger restaurant.
If your restaurant seats 80 people or more, you can probably take a gamble and seat a few walk-ins even if it looks like you’re fully booked for the night. Chances are, a few of those reservations won’t show or the timing will work out in your favor. If it doesn’t, go ahead and comp the reservation guests a free drink while they wait – over time, the policy will still pay off.
5. Let those revelers at the bar hang out a little longer.
This is a tip to use sparingly but if you’re on a wait and there’s a party at the top of the waitlist that seems awfully happy at the bar, go ahead and seat that impatient party hovering at the host stand first. We did this periodically at Blue Water when we felt confident that the party at the bar was having a blast and it was always a win-win.
6. Actively manage your turns to account for large parties.
At Blue Water, there was a busy night where an important party of four showed up with a reservation but no 4-top was available. The only table open was a 6-top I was holding for an upcoming reservation (with several additional 6-top reservations carefully mapped out later in the night). My manager, becoming increasingly agitated that he couldn’t seat his VIPs told me he was taking the 6-top. In one of the boldest moves of my 22-year-old life, I grabbed my manager’s arm before he could walk away and told him that no – he couldn’t have the table. I gave him the table number for a 4-top paying their check and told him to take the VIPs there as soon as it opened up. I’m not sure if my manager understood the crisis we averted with that move but I saw it over the next several hours, as we smoothly—but with zero margin for error—seated each of our large parties at the tables where we needed them.
Chances are, you don’t have too many spots in your restaurant that can accommodate a party of 6 or more. If you lose the opportunity to seat those parties where you need them, it will torpedo your planning for the rest of the night. So plan early for the large parties, don’t lose sight of them, and recheck your assumptions about when and where you can put them as the night plays out, making adjustments as needed.
7. Use technology so that host stress doesn’t reduce your total turns.
Here’s how things play out when a host stand gets hit hard by a spike in customers: the host quotes a reasonable wait time based on an accurate assessment of the info available (i.e. length of the waitlist, current utilization and status of tables, etc), then a few more parties show up and the now-slightly-agitated host moderately increases the wait time without an opportunity to assess the current situation, then a few additional parties show up and the very flustered host quotes an arbitrary and probably bonkers wait time so that the party will either leave or, at worst, stick around with a guarantee of being seated with tons of time to spare. For those early customers on the waitlist, the time is probably somewhat accurate but your host is unlikely to assess in real-time when you will reach a point where many tables turn and you can again accommodate everyone on your waitlist. The customers who got the bonkers quote have probably left and the restaurant has lost revenue that those customers would have contributed. These are the times when a waitlist app or restaurant platform can help your host to provide accurate quotes to keep revenue flowing by not turning away guests unnecessarily.
It can be tempting to focus on how to make the host stand run more smoothly -- or to not even think much about it at all. But the host stand is where revenue generation begins and is ripe for optimization. Don’t let easily avoidable pitfalls like the ones above hold you back from helping your restaurant achieve its utmost potential.